More MS news articles for June 1999

Swimmer to be buoy

He plans to encourage other MS patients by competing

Thursday, June 10, 1999
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

I f adversity has a face, Beeba Exton has had a good long look at it. His toes were so malformed at birth that they had to be surgically removed. His feet now resemble blunt clubs.

His left hand was so malformed that he required multiple operations to create fingers. Even now, they look stubby and webbed.

He has had diabetes, sleep apnea and a ruptured bowel that spewed bacteria into his bloodstream and nearly killed him. He has undergone gastric bypass to reduce obesity and high blood pressure.

And he has multiple sclerosis, a chronic and progressive disease of the central nervous system that has ravaged him.

He can hardly walk. When he does, he wobbles.

When he clips his shrubbery, his wife has to hold him up by the pants so he won't fall over.

Exton hardly seems like a candidate for a swimming competition.

But this Sunday, the 54-year-old Henrico County resident is set to slip into the Chesapeake Bay and swim a mile to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.

"It's something I've got to do," Exton said. "I know it sounds corny, but I want to show other MS patients that you don't have to sit back and take it."

The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, one of whose sponsors is the March of Dimes, will be held at Sandy Point State Park in Maryland. About 900 swimmers are expected to compete -- 300 at one mile, 600 at 4.4 miles -- in the fund-raiser.

Friends and acquaintances of Exton have pledged $2,000 toward his swim. Pledges are still coming in. Jim McNeal of the Dive Shop in Tuckernuck Square has provided him with a wet suit to keep the cold off.

Exton has been practicing for the swim for months -- at private clubs, YMCAs, in the open ocean.

"He might not be able to walk, but he can sure swim," said Robin Exton, his wife of 30 years.

Exton says his wife, principal of Henrico's Maybeury Elementary School, has kept him from sinking into despair.

"She's No. 1," he said. "When I start feeling sorry for myself, she gets on my case."

Without his wife and his two daughters -- Rory, 21, and Sonya, 18 -- to help him, Exton said, he never would've made it this far.

Exton has always been a battler, a hard-nose. He said his parents always encouraged him to be "as good as anybody," despite his malformed feet and hand.

He said he watched his mother battle polio and still live a productive life. So, he wasn't going to let problems keep him down.

When he finished high school, he had played football well enough to win a college scholarship to West Virginia State College, where he was a middle linebacker.

And he didn't think twice about entering what had been a predominantly black institution, despite being white and Jewish. He said he was among a handful of whites who lived in the dorms. (Today, 85 percent of the college's students are white.)

"It was the best place I could've gone," Exton said. "I'm a proud alumnus."

After earning a master's degree in recreation from Springfield College in Massachusetts, he and his new wife packed up to move to Richmond, where he would become program director at the Jewish Community Center. It was on the day of their move, in 1972, when he experienced blurred vision.

An adopted brother who was an ophthalmologist peered into his eyes. "He looked in and then stepped back. When I saw the look on his face, I knew I was in deep doo-doo," Exton said.

He was told that the attack he had might be a precursor to multiple sclerosis. Yet it wasn't until 1982 that he officially was diagnosed with the disease.

By then, he had a thriving pet-care business, A Dog's & Cat's World, on West Broad Street. Exton and his wife also breed prize-winning poodles, but that's a story in itself.

So is Exton's involvement in prize fighting. He is deputy boxing commissioner for the Virginia Boxing & Wrestling Association Inc. One of the things Exton misses most because of his disability is his involvement in athletics.

"He's always been an athlete," his wife said.

"And he's so competitive -- you never want to play Scrabble with him," Mrs. Exton said with a laugh.

She believes the Chesapeake Bay swim has reawakened his competitive spirit.

"I am not going to drown," Exton said. "I'm out to win it."