More MS news articles for April 2002

Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis

Thursday, April 18, 2002,

A high-powered attorney, Jay Gurmankin also is a classic urban dweller: His office is in downtown Salt Lake City, close to his Main Street condominium and near his favorite cocktail and dinner-hour haunts.

Another reason Gurmankin is city-bound has to do with his multiple sclerosis. It's not something he likes to dwell upon in conversation, but Gurmankin's MS has weakened his body to the point where car travel is a hassle and 40-plus-hour work weeks take a serious physical toll.

"I probably only work half to two-thirds of the time that I used to work when I was younger, " says Gurmankin, who still takes on a steady stream of cases in Utah for the Denver-based law firm Holme, Roberts and Owen. He also is considering taking on the duties of an agent who represents sports clients.

Doctors say such responsibilities are steep for someone in his stage of MS, but Gurmankin refuses to give up the mental challenges while his body often pains him.

The same perseverance is acted out each week on the NBC-TV drama "The West Wing." In the show, the fictional President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) copes with his own MS while playing leader to his family, staff and country. The story lines keep him hustling on the job, rarely focusing on the limits of his disability.

"By publicly disclosing that he has MS, [Sheen's] character provides a very important model of effectiveness and hope for the more than 300,000 Americans living with MS today," explains Jay Rosenberg, a doctor and education chairman at the Minnesota-based American Academy of Neurology.

On Wednesday, during the academy's annual conference in Denver, the group announced "The West Wing" producers and cast had earned the 2002 Public Leadership in Neurology Award. Previous winners include Parkinson's sufferer Janet Reno and Derrek Dickey, the former NBA player and Chicago Bulls radio broadcaster who had a stroke in 1997.

Researchers attending the conference also released a new study that shows stem cell transplants, using adult cells harvested from MS patients' own blood, may prevent the disease from growing worse. MS is still incurable and causes a variety of symptoms including vertigo, muscle weakness, vision problems, heat intolerance and can lead to paralysis and death. Drugs and other therapies developed over the years help sufferers lead fairly normal lives.

"The West Wing" drama also deals with another touchy subject: Studies show that some 40 percent of MS patients hide their diagnosis for years from family, friends or colleagues. Many say they don't want employer discrimination or to earn society's "disabled" tag, Rosenberg says.

For Gurmankin, a 1981 diagnosis of MS was easy enough to tell his family and coworkers about. But in his mind, Gurmankin remembers, the Pennsylvania-bred lawyer refused to believe he had a disease. Nearly a decade later, the grim reality set in after hike in Yellowstone National Park left him literally dragging his right leg to finish the trek. MS attacks myelin, the fatty barrier around nerve fibers and causes impulses to get bogged down or altogether halted.

Today, Gurmankin is more realistic about his symptoms. He works with the Utah MS Society to raise money for research and awareness. "Right now I have very little balance coordination and I've lost a lot of bodily strength. I use a motorized scooter and I can walk with a cane," he says of his physical challenges.

"But mentally, I like to work hard, I have no plans to retire and I thrive on the intellectual challenges. . . . I'm only 54," he says, laughing and waving at friends during a recent interview at a downtown restaurant. "And I actually like being a litigator."

He gives a nod to high-profile names like Martin Sheen, who he says does a fine job depicting life with MS, and the Colorado Supreme Court's chief justice Mary Mullarkey, who is now talking openly about having MS since 1994.

Gurmankin prefers educating others on MS through day-to-day contacts -- on the street, in the courtroom or through a chance meeting on an elevator.

"I don't advertise my MS," he says. "But at the same time most of my friends don't talk about it because we're too busy working hard and having fun."

© Copyright 2001, The Salt Lake Tribune