Mon, Feb. 25, 2002
BY PATRICK SWEENEY
ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS
U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone revealed Sunday that he was recently diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis.
Wellstone, who long has suffered back pain from a college wrestling injury, said he had been experiencing weakness in his right leg and learned about a month ago that he has multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease.
He is seeking a third term, and said the disease has not affected his ability to work long hours and will not impair his ability to campaign or to serve another six years in the Senate.
Wellstone's doctor, J. D. Bartleson of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, agreed.
"I see no reason that Sen. Wellstone can't maintain his usual activities,'' Bartleson said.
Wellstone invited reporters to his St. Paul home Sunday morning to talk about the recent diagnosis. He said people have been asking him with increasing frequency about a limp.
"I can no longer say it is a wres- tling injury because it's not,'' Wellstone said. "It's a mild form of MS.''
Wellstone's revelation that he suffers from multiple sclerosis is reminiscent of a plot line last year in "The West Wing,'' a top-rated NBC television drama about Washington politics. In the series, fictional President Jed Bartlett dealt with political fallout from hiding his MS from voters during his election campaign.
For many Americans, "The West Wing'' gave them more information about multiple sclerosis than they ever would have acquired in any other way.
In 1998, Wellstone launched an exploratory campaign for president, but then abandoned it in early 1999 saying that persistent back pain, which he blamed on a wrestling injury, would not allow him to mount a sustained, aggressive campaign. On Sunday, when asked about those comments, Wellstone he had no idea at the time that he had multiple sclerosis.
"That was an honest-to-God ruptured disc,'' he said.
Bartleson said multiple sclerosis is difficult or impossible to diagnose, except by observing symptoms over time and by ruling out other causes for the symptoms.
Bartleson, a neurological specialist, said Mayo physicians concluded in late January that Wellstone probably has had multiple sclerosis for about 15 years. He said Wellstone might eventually need to use a cane or other assistance to maintain mobility, but he said: "We would anticipate that, if there is any change in the next six years, it will be limited to the right lower limb.''
About 330,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, and about 15 to 20 percent have the "primary progressive'' form that Wellstone suffers from, Bartleson said.
Bartleson characterized Wellstone's disease as "mild'' and said it should not shorten his life expectancy. Nor will it affect him mentally. Wellstone is not receiving any medication for the ailment, the doctor said.
Wellstone, a former marathon runner, said he continues to work out six times a week, but no longer is able to run as he would like to.
He said he is not afraid that the stress of campaigning would aggravate the multiple sclerosis.
"The stress of the campaign is what I want to do,'' he said. "And the stress of being a U.S. senator is what I want to do.''
Wellstone summed up his prognosis this way: "Nothing's changed at all. I feel lucky.''
In response to Wellstone's announcement, his opponent in the Senate campaign, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, issued a statement of support. He said his "thoughts and prayers are with Sen. Wellstone and his family during this difficult time.''
Gov. Jesse Ventura and first lady Terry Ventura also extended their support to Wellstone.
In a prepared statement, the Venturas
said "these jobs are not easy, but fortunately, the senator has a strong
and supportive family to help him through tough times. We know that living
with a disability is difficult, but we are confident that Sen. Wellstone
and his family will meet this challenge with courage and dignity.''
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