More MS news articles for Nov 2001

Inspired Atlantan pushes to beat MS

Sunday, November 11, 2001
Maria Saporta - Staff

Don't tell Bill Fowler his case of multiple sclerosis is incurable --- that word is not in his vocabulary. Fowler knows modern medicine has yet to find a cure for the nerve-afflicting disease.

To listen to Fowler is to believe a cure will be found in his lifetime. That's enough to keep him going --- exercising 20 hours a week, taking agonizingly long walks with two canes, avoiding a wheelchair whenever possible, pushing to help the cause of MS research and continuing his civic contributions to make Atlanta a better place to live.

Fowler, former head of Arthur Andersen's tax division in Atlanta, explains in scientific terms how MS causes the destruction of the sheath around nerves so they no longer carry a healthy signal --- causing numbness and decreased mobility in limbs.

"The common theory is that nerves will not regenerate themselves," said Fowler, 57. "I think there is a way to rebuild the sheath, but so far the medical profession doesn't agree with me."

Fowler's attitude and dedication are contagious. He is well-known among business leaders, and many have watched his disease get progressively worse, from a slight limp to nearly total dependence on two canes. For them, Fowler has become Atlanta's MS poster child.

Never was that more apparent than at the recent MS Dinner of Champions, which honored retired CNN News Group Chief Executive Tom Johnson, Fowler's close friend for 11 years. Johnson has supported the dinner by securing CNN talk show host Larry King as master of ceremonies for several years.

Accepting his award, Johnson told the audience about traveling on the Orient Express with Fowler and their wives for 2 1/2 weeks this summer, saying he had never had a better time in his life.

"This guy never complains. Not once have I ever heard him say, 'Why me?' " Johnson said. "In that spirit, Edwina and I are making a personal gift for the William C. Fowler Scholar for MS research at Harvard University."

Their gift of $250,000 was perhaps the most demonstrative example of how Fowler's spirit has infected others.

Fighting back tears, Fowler was nearly speechless. "It's so hard to get that kind of money for MS," he said. "It goes right to the core of the research. It will permit Harvard to add a doctor, a research professional who will be able to stay in the laboratory more than the normal two-year stint."

Fowler's doctor for more than a decade is a leading MS scientist, David Hafler, a Harvard University professor. Harvard is collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is mapping the human genome.

According to Hafler, MS will be the first disease to be tracked, and he believes scientists will be able to "figure out the genetic makeup of MS" in the next five to 10 years. The collaboration includes the Atlanta-based Shepherd Center, which treats many MS patients.

Again, Fowler's fingerprints are apparent in the Harvard-MIT-Shepherd collaboration.

"Bill drives the science by constantly asking questions," Hafler said. "And Bill drives me. You see two types of people. You see some patients with MS or another chronic disease, and they fall apart. Bill has taken a very difficult situation and turned it into a victory."

It wasn't always easy. When doctors first suspected he had contracted MS in 1987, Fowler became depressed. His father was dying. The mother of his wife, Cindy, also was dying. The Fowlers told almost no one he had the disease until two years later.

Meanwhile, Cindy had signed on as one of the original nine Atlantans trying to bring the 1996 Olympics to town, a cause she would have relinquished to focus on her husband's health. But he didn't let her.

"Bill said, 'We are going on with our lives,' " she said. "He may have been depressed, but mad? Never. He never felt sorry for himself."

Fowler was able to pull himself out of depression. "I concluded I was going to live for the cure rather than live within the limitations of the disease," he said.

From the beginning, Fowler exercised as much as he could, even if that was counter to the prevailing medical advice of a decade ago.

"If I stopped working the muscle, I believe I would go downhill," he said. "As long as I keep moving, I can make a little improvement, a centimeter a week."

Fowler believes he is getting better. He is able to lift his weaker leg an inch or so off the ground, proudly saying, "That's more than I could do two years ago."

In one of his key civic roles, Fowler chairs the PATH Foundation, the developer of bicycle and walking trails around Atlanta. His hope is that one day he'll be able to ride the trails on a bicycle. In the meantime, Atlanta benefits.

"Bill has dealt with MS in a way that very few people could," said Jim Kennedy, CEO of Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a board member and major contributor to PATH. "He's always got a smile on his face and is always concerned about helping others."

People who come in contact with Fowler can't fail to be impressed with his infectious smile and his determination.

Rusty French, a partner in the Atlanta venture capital firm Noro-Moseley, recalled being on the island of Capri off the Italian coast and running into the Fowlers on a recent vacation. The island is one big rock with the town on the top and the hotels at the bottom.

They decided to meet for a drink and dinner atop the rock at 7 p.m. French told Fowler he would meet him at the hotel so they could walk the quarter-mile up the hill, typically a five-to-10 minute walk. Fowler said he would have to meet him at 5 p.m.

"He was flat determined," French said. "He was going to walk up that hill. He's a guy that's not going to let this thing hold him back. He will push it as hard as he can take it."

The Fowlers go to Capri every year. Fowler views the walk up the rock as an annual test of his strength, insisting he can make it up the steep incline more quickly than he could a few years ago.

Time is relative to someone afflicted with MS. Fowler would take 45 minutes to get from his car to his desk at Arthur Andersen's offices in the Georgia-Pacific building.

"I have more good friends in the Georgia-Pacific lobby, because I don't walk very quickly through the building. I have got time to talk to them," Fowler said. Although retired from Arthur Andersen, he still goes into the office and continues to visit with longstanding clients. "There are some advantages of having to go a little slower and hearing the birds."

In fact, there is little the Fowlers don't do. The couple goes to Europe three or four times a year. They have been to South Africa twice, South America, Central America, Asia and Australia.

Nearly two years ago, the Fowlers were in Costa Rica. Bill broke his good leg ziplining from a cable down a steep slope. "I thought I was 16 again," he said. "I had done eight landings perfectly. It was the ninth that got me."

The Fowlers were high school sweethearts, together six years before they got married. After 36 years of marriage, the disease has brought them closer together, rather than pulling them apart.

Trying to get Fowler to say anything negative about his life and his illness is impossible. "Life is full," he said.

In his Buckhead home, there is little evidence it's the residence of someone with MS, except in Fowler's office. There, in prime display, is Fowler's collection of canes --- antique walking sticks that turn into shotguns, swords, water guns and almost anything else imaginable.

His cane collection sums up Fowler's attitude toward life. While showing off his collection, Fowler smiled and said, "If I'm going to have this disease, I'm going to have fun with it."

© 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution