Top court's Mullarkey living, working with multiple sclerosis, has no plans to retire
Sunday, April 07, 2002
By Jenn Kostka
Special to The Denver Post
Behind the bronze state seal hanging on the two large doors of the Colorado Supreme Court's main chambers sits Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey.
It is here where Mullarkey weighs cases dealing with everything from political redistricting to sex offenders.
And she does all this while managing the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Mullarkey, her family and her colleagues have known about her daily battle with MS since she was diagnosed with the chronic disease in 1994. But most of the public, including the media, didn't know until this year, when word spread that Mullarkey was retiring for health reasons. She said in a recent interview she has no plans to step down.
"I told my doctor that I never intended to become a poster child for MS," Mullarkey said. "But he said: "Oh! But you're such a good role model!'- " Mullarkey, 58, has a mild case of multiple sclerosis, a disease that can be crippling, but her doctors believe she probably never will need anything more than a cane to help her walk.
The disease can cause many symptoms, including vertigo, muscle weakness and paralysis. Mullarkey has experienced fatigue, difficulty walking and numbness in her hands and feet.
She said she had strange symptoms for a long time before doctors were able to diagnose the disease. When she had difficulties ice skating one day, an activity she grew up doing in Wisconsin, she knew something was wrong.
Mullarkey went back to her doctors, who performed an MRI that revealed scarring in nerve tissue in her lower back. MS attacks myelin, the fatty barrier around nerve fibers, causing nerve impulses to be slowed or halted.
Mullarkey's final diagnosis gave her mixed emotions.
"It was kind of this reaction of relief and dread," Mullarkey said. "I finally knew what my symptoms were, but the dread part of (multiple sclerosis) was the unknown." Since doctors diagnosed Mullar key, she has been open about the disease with her family and colleagues.
"I told the people in court right away," Mullarkey said. "It's never been a secret."
Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis said she has known about Mullarkey's battle with MS since she joined the court in 1995.
"Other than some periodic un steadiness, I have never noticed any effect," Kourlis said. "I greatly respect the way in which she has handled herself." Mullarkey has had to make some lifestyle changes to manage MS.
"My husband and I used to do a lot of hiking, and I don't have the energy to do that anymore," she said. Mullarkey still skis with the help of "outriggers," modified ski poles with small skis where the poles' baskets usually are.
As far as work, Mullarkey said she has learned to take things more slowly.
"One adjustment is that things just take a longer time to do," she said. "The best part of being in the legal business is there are not heavy weightlifting requirements." Her family has had to make some minor adjustments, also.
"I have to call on my husband for buttoning service sometimes," Mullarkey joked.
Gov. Roy Romer appointed Mullarkey to the Supreme Court in 1987, and she became chief justice in 1998. The mandatory retirement age for Colorado judges is 72. She can stand for retention in 2010, but she said she will make a decision on retirement when that date gets closer.
"I joke that my husband's a chaplain at a homeless shelter and my son is a college student, so I need the job," she said.
About 350,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, including 5,500 Coloradans. Colorado has an unusually high number of MS cases, a phenomenon that scientists cannot explain.
Clare Sinacori, spokeswoman for the Colorado chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said that because the disease affects everyone differently, it may not bring a halt to a person's career.
"MS is a very unpredictable disease," Sinacori said. "Some people can go on and have very full careers without any interference." Sinacori also said people admire Mullarkey for how open she has been about her disease.
"She doesn't see any problem with revealing her MS, and she's still
really good at her job," Sinacori said. "That's inspirational to people
who have MS."
Copyright 2002 The Denver Post