Jan 22, 2003 : 9:29 pm ET
By MARK SCHULTZ
Delbert Richardson didnít look like Annette Funicello.
The former Mouseketeer and star of í60s beach movies was the only person Richardson had ever heard of with multiple sclerosis. He didnít know of any black people with the disease.
So when Richardson went into the hospital five years ago with stroke-like symptoms -- loss of motor functions on his left side, slurred speech -- the last thing he expected to be told was that he had MS.
In the years since, heís learned "this is not an exclusive club," Richardson said. "Anybody can be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis."
On Saturday, Richardson will tell his story at a conference sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Eastern North Carolina Chapter, at the Marriott in Research Triangle Park. The conference, "Striving and Thriving: African-Americans Coping Well with MS," is the second in North Carolina specifically for blacks living with the disease.
"This is a unique program," said Kaye Gooch, vice president for programs. "African-Americans are diagnosed at a lower rate than Caucasians, but the number of African-Americans with MS seems to be rising."
In addition to Richardson, who will tell how he rode a bicycle across the country to raise awareness about MS, the conference will feature a session on helping people with MS and their caregivers maintain healthy relationships, and a health expo with resources and information on health-related issues for blacks.
Of the 400,000 Americans with multiple sclerosis, 4 percent to 5 percent are black, Richardson said. The disease can be hard to diagnose because its symptoms often mimic other conditions. More blacks are likely to be diagnosed as they become more aware they can get it, he said.
"Even when Montel Williams came out and announced he had it, people were like ĎGeez, I didnít know that could happen,í" he said.
Three neurologists told Richardson he probably could have been diagnosed 20 years ago if doctors had performed an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or spinal tap.
It was only when he started breaking glasses -- because he could no longer hold on to them -- that Richardson began to realize something was wrong.
After his diagnosis, the field engineer and 20-year Army veteran fell into a depression.
Then, he said, he had a dream.
"In that dream I saw myself pedaling," he said. He also saw three images: the Space Needle, the Golden Gate Bridge and the White House.
On April 9, 2001, he set out on a specially designed three-wheeled recumbent bicycle. He was told he couldnít do it, that pulling the 375-pound weight would be too much for him. And it almost was.
He had three flare-ups along the way; a fourth temporarily put him in the hospital in Louisville, Ky.
On Nov. 7, seven months after he set out, Richardson arrived in Washington, D.C.
Today, Richardson, who will be 50 in June, speaks across the country about his experience. He also hopes to get a masterís degree in psychology.
Multiple sclerosis is not a disease that will kill you. Itís also not a disease that should stop you from living your life, he said. New drugs can slow its progression.
Richardson said he didnít seek medical help right away on his bike ride because he didnít want doctors to tell him he couldnít complete it.
"I didnít want anybody to tell me this was too much -- the key in MS is energy conservation -- you need to go home," he explained. "I refused to accept that."
Saturdayís conference is free to all participants, but preregistration is required. To register, please call the National MS Society, Eastern N.C. Chapter at (919) 834-0678 or (800) FIGHT MS.
The National MS Society, Eastern N.C. Chapter, provides programs and services to more than 2,800 people in 49 eastern North Carolina counties who live with multiple sclerosis.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, chronic disease of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) in which inflammation and breakdown in the protective insulation (myelin sheath) surrounding the nerve fibers of the central nervous system occurs.
Symptoms vary. MS can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, and even paralysis and blindness. These problems might be permanent, or they might occur sporadically.
Twice as many women as men have MS, with the onset of symptoms occurring most often between the ages of 20 and 50. Studies indicate that genetic factors may make certain individuals more susceptible to the disease, but there is no evidence that MS is directly inherited. It occurs more commonly among Caucasians, especially those of northern European ancestry, but people of African, Asian and Hispanic backgrounds are not immune.
Source: National Multiple Sclerosis Society
© 2003 The Durham Herald Company