Deseret News Archives,
Wednesday, March 21, 2001
By Carma Wadley Deseret News senior writer
In 1983, David Lander
was 36 and coming off seven years of success playing Squiggy on the hit
TV show "Laverne & Shirley." He was looking for ways to move beyond
the stereotype of that character when life stepped in and handed him his
most difficult role yet. Lander was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Hollywood was not then -- nor is it now, he says -- a good place to get sick. Lander decided to hide his disease from everyone except his immediate family, his wife of five years and his 1-year-old daughter. He did that -- making jokes, covering up falls and limps, suffering through suspicions of alcoholism -- for 16 years. In 1999, he finally went public with his condition.
Since then, he has become a goodwill ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, traveling around the country to help bring awareness of the disease to those who don't know much about it -- and hope and inspiration to those who have a personal acquaintance with it.
Those objectives have brought him to Salt Lake City, where he will participate in a patient program tonight at Jordan Commons.
"I like going to Salt Lake," he said in a telephone interview from the ballpark in Phoenix where he was attending an Anaheim Angels spring-training baseball game. Lander has worked as a scout for the Angels, and now he will be doing comic routines at games in Anaheim.
So he knows about Salt Lake City's new connection with the Angels. But it was also here that he did his first patient program. "I was doing 'Once Upon a Mattress' in Ogden -- that was the first thing I'd done after going public with my MS -- and they asked me to do a satellite hookup to talk about it."
Lander has also written a book about his experience, "Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody," which details his experience. (He also appears in the movie "Say It Isn't So," which opens Friday.)
"So I've been working. I've been doing a lot." People often ask him, he says, if he has lost any jobs now that Hollywood knows he has MS. And that's hard to say. "No one's going to come out and say that's the reason." But, he adds, a tremendous burden has been lifted by not having to hide his condition anymore.
Still, he is not sorry he waited so long. "I'm real happy with the way I did it," he says. "When you are first diagnosed, you go through the anger, the grieving, the 'why me?' process. And that is all better kept in your immediate family instead of getting out on every talk show.
"Now, I'm more mature. I understand it better. I can talk from experience instead of just my gut reaction."
Since he was diagnosed, some hopeful strides have been made in treatment of the disease, which affects the central nervous system. "It used to be that there was nothing you could do but stay out of the heat, take cold showers and wear loose clothes. Now there is a whole new category of what they call ABC drugs that help block exacerbations. Since I've been taking Avonex once a week, I'm not limping as much, I'm feeling stronger. Here I am, out in the heat."
Still, he says, he gets tired of hearing celebrities talk about finding a cure. "We haven't even found the cause yet. And everyone who has MS has a different form. Will a 'cure' that helps Annette Funicello help Richard Pryor or me?" he asks. They may all have the same disease, but expressions of it vary widely.
One thing he has learned about MS, Lander says, is that it makes no promises, and it keeps every one of them. "The only way I've learned to live with it, is to learn to live without the things I've taken for granted." Simple things, like walking, let alone running.
But, he has also learned to trust himself. "One of the reasons I kept quiet for so long was that I was afraid of the stigma. Then, I realized I was one of the people I was afraid of. I was handicapping myself. I've learned that I don't need to live down to other people's expectations."
He says he has learned to be more patient and to be more understanding of people who have chronic diseases. And, he has learned that MS may change how you act, what you do, but it doesn't change who you are.
Humor has been very important to him, has helped him get through many of the rough times. "But it wasn't like I got MS and turned into a funny guy. I was always a funny guy. And in no way did the disease affect my sense of humor. That was nice to know."
Lander still has good days and bad days. He still worries about an uncertain future. He knows it is an insidious, awful disease.
But he has also learned, that whatever else happens, MS can't take it all. "I will always have my heart and soul, my wit and wisdom," whatever scenes play out in this most difficult role.
Lander talks tonight
David Lander, best known for his portrayal of Squiggy on TV's "Laverne & Shirley," will be speaking about his experience with multiple sclerosis tonight at Jordan Commons, 9270 S. State, from 7-8:30 p.m.
Also on the program will be Bob Satovick, director of Western Neurology Associate's MS Clinic in Salt Lake.
The general public is invited to attend the event, which is sponsored by MS Activesource. The first 200 people will receive a complimentary copy of Lander's book, "Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught MS and Didn't Tell Nobody." Lander will be signing books at the conclusion of the program. Refreshments will be served.
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