Fox speaks on Parkinson’s disease, acceptance, family

Michael J. Fox spoke to a full house at Bridges Auditorium last Friday about life, before and after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The celebrated actor learned he had Parkinson’s, a degenerative disorder that affects the brain cells responsible for planning and controlling body movement, when he was 29. While medication offers some relief, his symptoms—which include uncontrollable shaking and twitching—have gotten progressively worse over the years.

It sounds pretty tragic. And yet, the actor insists his life is better than it would have been if he never got sick.

One of the biggest lessons Mr. Fox has learned from from Parkinson’s is how to relinquish control, a scary but necessary proposal. It can be surprisingly liberating.

“What I couldn’t do was more freeing than what I could do. I realized I could play anyone, as long as he had Parkinson’s,” he joked.

The appearance by Mr. Fox, who has a daughter attending Pomona, coincided with the school’s annual parents weekend. He covered a lot of ground in his hour-long talk, during which he fielded questions first by neuroscience professor Nicole Weekes and then by students. 

When Ms. Weekes asked if he supports the idea of universal health care, he noted that he was born and raised in Canada, a country where citizens are afforded medical coverage as a right. He can hardly be blamed for finding the notion both familiar and feasible. He asserted that all it would seem to require is for the very rich to pay a bit more in taxes.

“I’ve been to the Hamptons—I’ve seen the yachts. I just think they can kick a little in,” he said.

He then talked about his experiences as an advocate for Parkinson’s research, which have been by turns rewarding and frustrating.

In 1998, Mr. Fox testified before congress on the importance of stem cell research. He was surprised by the vehemence of the opposition.

The stem cells in question were from frozen human embryos that were scheduled to be disposed, he noted. Rather than treating them as refuse, he argued, why not use them for research with enormous potential to help people with conditions like paralysis, Parkinson’s and cerebral palsy? “We’re talking about people’s lives here,” he said.

Instead, the George W. Bush administration characterized stem cell research as an assault on human lives, referring to the embryos as “snowflake babies, which was such a George Bush thing to say,” Mr. Fox marveled.

One of the most colorful moments of the stem-cell fight was when conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh imitated Mr. Fox, jerking his body around as he insisted that the actor’s display of symptoms was “purely an act” put on for congress.

“I wasn’t offended,” he said. “I just figured I must have really pissed him off.”

President Bush implemented a policy in August of 2001 severely limiting federal funding for stem cell research. For the remainder of his tenure, he used his veto power to override any legislative attempts to loosen that policy. 

In 2009, in one of his first executive acts, President Barack Obama rescinded the legislation limiting federal funding for human stem cell research. “In the end, I’m proud of my work,” Mr. Fox said.

Ms. Weekes shared some numbers that should also fill the actor with pride. His Michael J. Fox Foundation has garnered an astonishing $450 million towards Parkinson’s research, making it the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s disease research in the world.

Stem cell research may yield a treatment for Parkinson’s, but that treatment will do little good if it’s tendered only after the signs of the disorder present themselves.

Mr. Fox started showing symptoms of early-onset Parkinson’s, beginning with a single, trembling finger, in 1991 when he was on the set of the movie Doc Hollywood. By the time he was diagnosed a year later, 80 percent of the neurological function controlling body movement had been compromised.

Since 2010, the Michael J. Fox Foundation has focused on discovering biomarkers that can help people determine if they are genetically predisposed to develop the disease. He and the scientists at work hope the research will lead to the kind of early intervention Parkinson’s requires.

A lady had a baby in a tree

Mr. Fox’s story is a well-known one. He rose to fame playing whip-smart Republican teen Alex P. Keaton in the long-running sitcom Family Ties. Film success followed, including his starring turn in the Back to the Future franchise.

Throughout the 1980s, he pushed himself hard and partied even harder in a search for fulfillment and success. Fast cars, booze and all manner of ‘80s-style excesses were the order of the day. “I was the prince of Hollywood and digging it,” he said.

He began to get some perspective after Tracy Pollan, who played his girlfriend on Family Ties, pointed out that his lifestyle was putting his career and health in danger.

Ms. Pollan, who he married in 1988, said, “What are you doing? You’re killing yourself.’”

Romance emerged from their longtime friendship, and Ms. Pollan was pregnant within a month of their marriage. The couple went on to have four children. It took a while for Mr. Fox to achieve balance, trading compulsive work for introspection and engagement and curtailing the drinking that initially ticked up after his diagnosis.

Family has since become all-important to Mr. Fox, who shared a few chestnuts of parenting wisdom. One of these can be encapsulated in the phrase: “A lady had a baby in a tree.”

After the Fox family welcomed three girls, he learned something about the estrogen-charged quibbling that ensued. “When you hear your wife and your daughters arguing in the kitchen, don’t go in there,” he said to boisterous laughter from the audience. 

When his girls were younger, they would sometimes approach him with issues that seemed as inconsequential as they were highly charged. “They’d come to me with these things, and I didn’t know how to answer them,” Mr. Fox shared.

Then, he came across a news article that offered a perspective on the kind of troubles that humans can face and overcome.

“A village had been flooded and there was torrential flooding sweeping up animals, livestock and buildings and people,” he said. “What happened was a lady had been swept up and was carried at a raucous pace seaward. She was pregnant and she somehow managed to grab onto a tree branch.”

“She got up in a tree and actually delivered her baby,” he continued. “She was rescued some hours later nursing the baby. Now whenever the kids come to me with issues, I say, ‘A lady had a baby in a tree.’”

Mr. Fox feels it’s important to note that, when he’s not medicated, he’s a wreck. It’s a reality of Parkinson’s and it’s the reason why it’s essential that a cure be found.

Just getting up in the morning is a challenge. He wakes up and his feet are cramped. He has to put on hard shoes to get his feet to conform. Next, he shuffles to the bathroom where he takes a shower, sitting on a little bench, and negotiates the difficulty of washing his hair. Mundane tasks like brushing his teeth have become laborious.

Then he shuffles into the area where he gets dressed, which is dominated by a mirror. “For a minute, I’ll look at myself, kind of all crumpled up, shaking and wet, and say, ‘What are you smiling at?’”

Mr. Fox can sometimes rue the trivialities of daily life—a transaction at a grocery store can seem overwhelming. Simply reaching into a wallet and presenting a credit card can often be hindered by tremors.

“I hate transcactions,”? he said. “When my kids are with me, I tell them, ‘You can get anything you want, as long as you handle the transcaction.’”

Luckily, medication helps him to continue to speak to people, as an advocate and an inspiration. He is still handsome and youthful in appearance, and his speech—if occasionally slurred or halting—is marked by his off-the-cuff wit.

It’s all about attitude, the thing that has kept him going since, 26 years ago, he was told that his career would be over in a decade and, soon after, he would be wheelchair-bound. “It’s not projecting into a grim future that has made my present so wonderful,” he said.

Students proceeded to pose several questions to Mr. Fox, one of which was pure, delicious silliness: “If you were a superhero, what would your powers be?”

Mr. Fox pondered the question as thoughtfully as any others at his Bridges appearance.

“I think I’d be a dog superhero. My ability would be to save dogs in peril,” he said.  And then he sang: “Here, I’ve come to save the day.”

—Sarah Torribio


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