April 14, 2003
Elizabeth A. Katz
Ina Cohen, a disabilities lawyer, knows something about devotion.
For decades, she cared for her husband, Jonathan Kopit, a fellow attorney who already had multiple sclerosis when they married in 1978. She was the one who, toward the end of his life, helped him eat and dealt with his clients when it became too difficult for him to do so. She was the person who could translate his speech for others when it became too garbled for them to understand.
"He was such an amazing person," she said. "He always looked at what he could do rather than what he couldn't. Everyone was enriched by him."
Cohen, 53, said she misses her husband's sense of humor - his cracking of jokes at times when it seemed inappropriate - and his attitude and outlook on life.
"We related to each other," she said.
"He just absolutely had the spirit and determination to do what he wanted to do."
And it was because Kopit refused to use a feeding tube that he succumbed to MS in September 1993 at age 46 after choking on food at a local restaurant.
Today, Cohen has taken that same devotion she felt toward her late husband and is using it to benefit those with MS, a chronic, unpredictable neurological disease that can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors and paralysis, among other devastating symptoms.
Cohen puts in more than 1,000 volunteer hours a year at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Michigan Chapter in Southfield, providing pro-bono legal counsel to the chapter as well as holding a Saturday legal clinic at the Southfield office every other month.
She also travels around the state, putting on employment and MS seminars in cities as far north as Petoskey and Marquette. She also speaks around the state on legal issues and MS.
Cohen said that many times those with MS have legal matters related to employment or school issues, as well as disability or medical insurance issues.
"The economy has been really bad and it is so hard for them to continue working," she said. "I try to get people to see the bigger picture and I try to get people to look at their options."
Oftentimes, MS patients have a hard time keeping insurance coverage and maintaining a sense of continuity in their lives. Cohen said she knows little "loopholes" that can help those with MS - such as young patients who may be eligible to stay on a parent's life insurance if they are diagnosed at an early enough age or that students with MS may not have repay back a student loan if they are disabled while having the loan.
"I've learned so many little things that they couldn't find themselves," she said.
Pat McDonald, president of the society's Michigan Chapter, calls Cohen "amazing."
"She is phenomenal," McDonald said. "Ina does assist the Multiple Sclerosis Society with pro-bono legal counsel, but more importantly, she does the legal clinics. She talks to people all over the state."
McDonald said Cohen's work with MS Society netted her a spot in its National Volunteer Hall of Fame in November 2002.
"It is a very intensive and difficult process" to be chosen for the hall of fame, McDonald said. "Only a handful of volunteers get in."
But Cohen deserves the honor considering she gives hope to those in situations that seem hopeless.
"She empowers people," McDonald said. "She encourages people who often feel that their situation is hopeless and helpless. It increases their self-esteem and makes them feel whole again."
Besides her legal work, Cohen plans to lace up her walking shoes May 4 to assist in the society's annual walk in Birmingham to raise money for MS patients. It was an idea she had three years ago when the walk fell on her birthday. Rather than throwing her a big birthday party, Cohen encouraged friends and family to sponsor her in the walk.
"It's just nice to be out to make money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society," she said. "The services are incredible. We are the only chapter that offers legal assistance every other month. We have the 'Ask the Nurse' program, and we have fabulous volunteers."
For more information about the Multiple Sclerosis Walk Sunday, May 4 in Birmingham, call 248-350-0020 or 1-800-243-5767.
Copyright © Daily Tribune 2003