All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for March 2003

Actress focuses on positive in battling MS

Mar 19th, 2003

Teri Garr calls from her hairdresser's.

"I'm doing about 45 things at once," she said apologetically, over the roar of the blow dryer.

But a busy day is a good day when you have multiple sclerosis.

At least you're moving.

"I try to appreciate all the things I have, even when I'm running crazy," said Garr, a former Lakewood resident, who still acts and wears a brace to support her weakened right leg, takes daily medication and notices that she feels better when she exercises.

An actress for more than three decades, with hits such as "Young Frankenstein," "Mr. Mom," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Oh God" and an Academy Award nomination for "Tootsie," Garr went public with her disease only last year. Now, she's touring the nation talking to people with MS. She'll be in Akron for a free talk at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Quaker Square Hotel.

Her message to others who have the disease? Live with it, with the emphasis on live.

"What's the point in being grim about it," said Garr, 53, famous for her comedy roles.

"I think, you don't know if you're going to be hit by a car, either. I mostly have good days, thank God. But MS is a slippery slope. Some people get it worse than others."

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease of the central nervous system; it is not fatal, but its unpredictable effects can come and go without warning. Its victims can be nearly symptom-free or forced to use wheelchairs. Across the disability spectrum, MS can cause some numbness, poor coordination and fatigue as well as blindness and paralysis. About 400,000 people in the United States have it, about twice as many women than men.

Garr's symptoms started in 1983, with twinges in her foot, when she was jogging in New York's Central Park. The spasms were so slight, she thought they were nervous tics. Then, there were long periods with no problems. Ten years ago, about the time people were asking, "Teri, why are you limping?" Garr went in for more medical tests. Finally, a doctor put Garr in a hot tub and assessed her extreme weakness and fatigue when she dragged herself out.

"I think you have MS," he told her.

"I've had every test," said Garr. Her MS diagnosis is murky, "but that's the name they've put on it."

Garr feels bad about blaming her malady on the town she lived in for a few years when she was very young, but knowing that Ohio and other cold-weather states have a higher prevalence of MS than warmer climes, she wonders.

"You know, I think I may have gotten it in Cleveland. I remember being a little kid in dancing school and being stronger on one side than the other. Who knows?" she said.

That's the problem with MS. Not only is it difficult to diagnose, no one knows where it comes from. It could be a virus. It could have genetic or environmental triggers. It might somehow get into a child's body and live undetected for a long, long time.

Add to that geographical concerns. Inexplicably, according to statistics from the Buckeye Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Northeast Ohio has an incidence rate of 150 cases of MS for every 100,000 people. Southern Ohio has a little more than 100 cases for every 100,000. All of Florida counts about 57 cases for every 100,000.

Garr kept quiet about her health, kept smiling and kept working.

"I just didn't want to be defined by a disease," she said.

She hid her symptoms for years.

That's tough when you work in an industry that starts nailing an actress' career coffin shut well before she turns 40.

Tough, when you work in a ruthless town that actor-comedian Fred Allen described this way: "You can put all the sincerity in Hollywood into a flea's navel and still have room for two sesame seeds and an agent's heart."

Then Garr had an epiphany.

What's the difference in being handicapped and being a woman over 50 in Hollywood?

And she's a born optimist.

"We were a show-business family," she said. "It was always, don't worry, there's something better, brighter around the corner."

Garr's mother, Phyllis, once a Rockette, and her actor dad, Eddie, renowned for his impersonations on the vaudeville circuit, moved their family to Lakewood where Garr's mother had grown up. For several years in the mid-1950s, they lived in the attic of the home of her Austrian immigrant grandparents, said Garr.

"I call them my Anne Frank years," she said.

She remembers kindergarten and first grade at Lakewood's Madison Elementary School dimly but fondly, along with her grandparents' house on Orchard Grove Avenue.

Garr will bring her 9-year-old daughter, Molly, with her when she speaks in Akron and has promised her a side trip to Lakewood.

"All those sweet little streets - Lakewood was like an Andy Hardy movie," she said.

One thing Garr doesn't want around her these days are long faces. People who say, "Oh, how are you dear?" . . . make her nuts.

"Sympathy and pity are no help. They make me feel worse," said Garr, who is a paid ambassador for MS LifeLines, an educational and support service sponsored by Serono and Pfizer pharmaceutical companies.

Maybe work has slowed down for Garr since she owned up to having MS. She isn't sure. But she played Carl Reiner's wife on an episode last month of ABC's "Life With Bonnie" and has auditioned for three TV series' pilots.

"All three shows involve gay men," said Garr.

The gay scenario thrills her activist side. "I say OK, let's take the stigma away from that, too,' " she said.

© 2003 The Plain Dealer.