Actress Teri Garr using battle with MS to help others
July 15, 2003
By Philip Potempa
South Bend Tribune
One challenge Teri Garr says she doesn't need is her friends focusing on the dehabilitating effects of multiple sclerosis.
Garr, 53, has been dealing with the disease since she was diagnosed 20 years ago.
Still, she says people insist on sharing stories of doom and gloom.
"I'm at this party, and a friend of mine I haven't seen in a while is asking me how I'm doing," Garr said.
"I tell her fine. And then she starts on and on about Richard Pryor, saying: 'Have you seen him lately? He's in a wheelchair now.' "
Garr said she nods and acknowledges she's aware that Pryor, who also has MS, has been struggling recently with the condition and that she doesn't need to hear any more details.
However, her friend persists.
"You know Teri, he can't really even talk anymore," the friend says.
"I finally tell her that I've heard plenty, (and) I don't need to know any more updates right now," Garr says firmly, remaining politely composed.
But the friend has to add one final bit of commentary to cap off their exchange.
Pryor and actress Annette Funicello are two other famous people who have MS.
But it's Garr who spends much of her time today educating others, including her friends, about what MS really is and what it is not.
Education and awareness about MS have become her platform.
On June 21, Garr was in Chicago for the day speaking at a conference at the Hyatt Hotel about new advances in the fight to find a cure. And on July 22, Garr travels to Valparaiso, Ind., to speak to 500 guests at a luncheon at the Strongbow Inn sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and Women Against Multiple Sclerosis (WAMS).
Nancy Adams, the chairwoman for the event, who also has MS, says Garr's "message helps give confidence to others."
Last month's Chicago conference, sponsored by the pharmaceutical giant Serono and Pfizer, which markets the drug Rebif, gathered patients, doctors and motivational speakers to share information. Garr is a paid ambassador for MS Lifelines, a support service for people living with MS and for their families, which is funded by Serono and Pfizer. Garr is using Rebif to control her MS condition.
"When I look around me and the world issues that are out there, me having MS is really small potatoes in the grand scheme," Garr said. "I'm working to change how others look at people with this awful disease."
The first time Garr experienced her health concerns was in 1983.
"I was always big into jogging, and I was living in New York at the time," she said. "I began having problems with stumbling and tripping over my own feet. I thought I was just being clumsy but decided to check it out."
Garr, whose only brother is a physician in Southern California, saw specialists who believed the problem to be something minor involving a pinched nerve. After a short time, the problem seemed to correct itself, and Garr put the entire episode behind her.
However, what Garr was experiencing was the earliest undetected signs of MS. The disease, which can be difficult to detect and control because it reveals itself in mounting intervals and spurts, had gone into remission, giving Garr little reason to further investigate her earlier medical advice.
By 1993, the disease re-emerged and in full force. This time around, doctors made a right-on target diagnosis.
"MS is a slippery slope," Garr said. "There is so much we still don't know about this disease and what lies ahead down the road. Even among doctors, there's no blanket opinions."
Author Nance Guilmartin, a community service advocate from Massachusetts, spoke at the gathering with Garr, sharing advice from her new book, "Healing Conversations" (Jossey-Bass Press, 2002, $18.95).
"My book isn't just about talking about MS, but also about how to communicate about other challenges in life, too, from Alzheimer's to when a loved one dies," Guilmartin said.
"It's so great to travel as much as I do with Teri because she's an excellent example of someone who knows how to communicate about a tough subject. But it's when we're at a loss for words that we need to talk the most."
Garr is someone who has become not only famous for talking, but also for a successful acting career.
From her 1982 Academy Award-nominated performance in "Tootsie" opposite Dustin Hoffman, to starring roles in "Young Frankenstein," "Close Encounters," "The Black Stallion" and "Mr. Mom," Garr has earned her reputation for being well-versed. Her television work began with roles on the original "Star Trek." Garr has a busy résumé to show for it in the 1990s, including her role as the mother of Lisa Kudow's "Friends" character, Phoebe. Most people associate Garr with her countless times on the couch on David Letterman's talk shows.
"I'm from Lakewood, Ohio, so I think Dave and I have that Midwest connection going," Garr said.
"I'm always asked about him, no matter where I go or what I do. The chemistry we have together comes from a shared sense of humor and admiration for each other."
Garr, who is divorced ("I'm attracted to handsome, dysfunctional Irishmen. What can I say? It's a weakness," she says), has one daughter, Molly, with whom she lives in Los Angeles.
The worst effects of her disease have been fatigue, poor memory and weak cognitive skills at moments and a "drop foot" condition that requires her to wear a brace.
She said the worst part of dealing with the disease is the false opinions of others, especially the group she calls "the Hollywood set."
"There's always lots of rumors and whispering, and that's one of the reasons my phone stopped ringing for work," she said. "I don't know what's worse in Hollywood, being handicapped or being a woman over age 50."
Garr said she continues to fight for two things: truth and a cure for what she describes as "an insidious disease."
"I've never thought of myself as a victim and never will."
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