Thursday, July 10, 2003
By Patrick Butters
Scripps Howard News Service
In a lot of ways, Clay Walker is a lot like any other country music star. He wears the big black cowboy hat. He sings with the low, sentimental Randy Travis voice that cracks at the appropriate point in a song, to underscore emotion.
Walker looks buff in a white T-shirt, a common pose among male country hunks. He has a beautiful wife. And Walker has put in his share of hits, making 11 No. 1 tunes and selling, according to his news release, more than 8 million albums since 1993. He makes good money. He has horses. We talked to him on a boat dock in Galveston, the southeast Texas city perched on the Gulf of Mexico. Walker seems to live the good life.
Yet, heís not like all of the country music stars. Walker has multiple sclerosis and has started the Band Against MS Foundation.
Not long after he cut his fourth album in April 1996, Walker began feeling numbness on his right side and facial spasms while he was touring. "I had had Bellís Palsy, so I thought the symptoms were similar," says Walker friend and musician Kyle Frederick, referring to a facial nerve disorder that affects 40,000 Americans a year.
Walker went to a doctor and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His oldest daughter had just been born. Walker began feeling numb in his right leg and hand, a sure sign of paralysis. He was only 26. "Itís pretty anxiety provoking," says Dr. Jerry S. Wolinsky, M. D., director of MS research at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, "especially at the start when thereís so much uncertainty of whether it will happen again."
Walker didnít make the news public. The singer hadnít a clue what MS was all about, and he wanted to learn. "I didnít know what was going to happen to me," Walker says.
The singer studied the disease. And he kept it mum. He credits Copaxone, a self-injectable drug he must use in the long term, which modulates the immune system.
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological ailment. It has to do with the destruction of myelin, which surrounds nerve fibers in the central nervous system. Symptoms include stiffness, weakness, numbness, vision problems, sexual problems, bladder and bowel control issues, swallowing problems, even emotional and intellectual problems.
According to the Band Against MS Foundation, relapsing-remitting MS, which Walker has, is the most common, and usually means partial or complete recovery from the disease. "Itís very mild, like most people with MS," says Wolinsky, who treats Walker. "Clay has been blessed with no residual side effects. Iíve watched him perform, and I wish I had that much energy."
After relapsing-remitting MS is secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, or SPMS. There are fewer relapses but disability and symptoms can increase.
The worst form of MS is primary progressive MS, where the personís system completely breaks down, gradually. There is no chance of remission. No one knows the cause of the illness. It strikes less than 15 percent of all MS cases.
As the news spread of his illness and recovery, Walker began to run into more MS patients, particularly after concerts. What he saw wasnít always pretty. "Iíve seen people in wheelchairs," he says. "Itís hard to sit on the sidelines. Sometimes you see people who are devastated after theyíve been newly diagnosed. And sometimes thereís not enough to explain to them that itíll be OK."
He says he was inspired by actor Michael J. Fox, whose recent interview with NBCís Jane Pauley reveals how far his symptoms from Parkinsonís Disease have advanced. Nevertheless, the TV and movie star began The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which recently awarded more than $2 million to study how inflammation affects Parkinsonís Disease.
So, Walker started the Band Against MS Foundation in February. Walker
says he wants it to be a place for people with multiple sclerosis to go
and find out about new advances in drug treatments and therapies. It also
encourages those with MS to seek treatment, and to encourage funding of
MS research. "My absolute goal is to find a cure for the disease, hopefully
in the next four or five years," says Walker. "The medicines have made
a lot of headway, even from about five years ago." The Band Against MS
foundationís tollfree line is (800) 728-8051. The Web site is http://www.band-against-ms.org
Copyright © 2003, Scripps Howard News Service