TV actor David L. Lander recounts his experiences with multiple sclerosis and his decision to keep his condition a secret for 15 years
May 2, 2004
TC Palm News
Much that David L. Lander had to say at Saturday's grand opening of the MS Center of Vero Beach struck a chord with Dorothy Little-Johnson.
She was among 200 to 300 people coping with multiple sclerosis who turned out to hear the "Laverne & Shirley" TV actor, who played Andrew "Squiggy" Squiggman, recount his experiences with MS and his decision to keep his condition a secret for 15 years.
Lander, 56, was diagnosed in 1984, the year after the cancellation of the seven-year show.
He is now ambassador to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Little-Johnson, 49, was diagnosed with MS, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, in November.
"(David) made me have a lot of hope as far as he said we kind of paralyze ourselves," Little-Johnson said. "That's kind of how I've been. I've felt paralyzed. Hearing what he had to say put a different spin on it for me."
Little-Johnson said Lander's description of his first full-fledged attack, which led him to seek a diagnosis, resembled her initial attack last October.
She said she stumbled on her way to the bathroom and slid onto the floor "writhing in pain," which shot down her right side. Her right hand balled up and her right foot turned inward.
"I thought I was having a stroke or something," she said. "It was excruciating. All I could do was scream."
She traveled by ambulance to Indian River Memorial Hospital.
Her diagnosis came soon afterward.
She sat in the car and cried for a full hour after getting her diagnosis, she said.
MS most often occurs in people between ages 20 and 40 and is more prevalent in women. The society estimates that there are about 400,000 Americans with MS. Every week about 200 people are diagnosed with MS in the United States.
Although much of Lander's talk made light of the physical challenges that come with MS, such as negotiating steep curbs and cobblestone sidewalks, his core message was about resisting the tendency to stigmatize oneself.
He spoke of a mild heart attack he suffered in 1994 and the rehabilitation that followed, which required that he exercise on a treadmill.
He said he was terrified he'd fall and get sucked under the belt.
But when he successfully managed the treadmill, it altered his perception of his capabilities. He realized there was a lot more he could do if he just challenged himself.
"It took a heart attack to realize I was handicapping myself," Lander said.
He urged the audience not to be their own enemies.
Lander gave out free personally autographed copies of his 2000 book, "Fall Down Laughing — How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody."
At the end of Lander's talk, the majority of the audience members — spanning the spectrum of ambulatory abilities from those with canes, to walkers, to wheelchairs and motorized scooters — rose to their feet in applause.
"It's great to be at an MS event and get a standing ovation," Lander said. "It's kind of like an oxymoron. I appreciate it and I hope none of you are in great pain."
The MS Center is a state-of-the-art facility, which seeks to offer one-stop comprehensive care. It opened in early March and is affiliated with the MS Center of Florida Foundation and its network of physicians within the state.
It includes an on site MRI, IV-infusion therapy suite, enlarged examination rooms, neuro-diagnostic lab and a physical therapy unit. It is also involved with clinical trials and research.
Lander referred to the center as the "Disneyworld of MS," with each room being used to treat a different symptom. "It's the dream," Lander said of comprehensive care.
The center's director, Dr. S. James Shafer, has about 300 MS patients spanning from Brevard to Martin counties.
Shafer also spoke at Saturday's event about current treatments and future therapies.
"About half the patients in this state and in the country are being treated appropriately for MS," Shafer said.
That means the other half are not receiving appropriate treatment.
Shafer referred to this as "a huge treatment gap."
"The standard of care now is that anyone with MS should be treated,"
Shafer said. "We don't have a cure, but we have good treatments."
Copyright © 2004, The E.W. Scripps Co.