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Michael J. Fox: an ordinary hero

Parkinson's DiseaseColleges and UniversitiesTelevisionTheaterBroadway Theater

America needs a new kind of hero, not a well sculptured hunk trying to impress us with his awesome physique or some newly minted techno-geek. We don't need anything strange or fancy. We just need an ordinary hero.

I nominate Michael J. Fox.

He's not too big and not too small. He is non-threatening and kind hearted. He is your neighbor, who makes a point to have a few extra "get well" cards that he could deliver when someone is sick, and he has candy that kids really like for Halloween. He is attractive, but he is not the kind of guy who is afraid to get his boots wet. He is funny, but not funny in a way that puts anyone down, and has recently returned to television with a new comedy series: "The Michael J. Fox Show."

What makes him a hero, though, is his commitment to standing up to a very not-funny condition: Parkinson's' Disease.

My neurologist likes to say that "If you know a person who has Parkinson's, you know a person who has Parkinson's." The medical establishment disagrees on virtually everything, including diagnosis and best treatment. The only observation that elicits agreement is that there is no cure in sight.

Having a hero like Michael J. Fox to look up to, matters to me and the one million other Americans living with Parkinson's.

You see, I am a tenured, full professor at a major U.S. university and mother of two teenagers. I have not surrendered my professional and personal life just because I have Parkinson's. To be sure, Parkinson's is a difficult condition , but with appropriate medical treatment and in some cases surgery, people can live and work with Parkinson's for a very long time.

When I received my diagnosis, my initial instinct was to hide it. Maybe then I could get on with life as it was. Moving backward was impossible. I discovered that the only way to live is in the present. Thankfully, the disability-rights movement had already begun to pave the way.

My university has for years had an excellent "disability-rights" policy. This policy was largely designed to address student needs, but also it has taken on the reasonable accommodations that faculty may need to be effective in their job. For me, a "reasonable accommodation" might constitute an extra assistant, who can travel with me to conferences, thus addressing the need to increase my ability to increase mobility in the classroom or conference room and, consequently to reduce stress. When it comes to Parkinson's, there are good days and there are bad days.

A bad day can also be characterized by the degree to which Parkinson's sufferers lose control over their movements, become squirmy or, alternatively, frozen. Faces are most likely to appear icy. A very bad day is a day when the "person with Parkinson's" (PWP) can't remember when she last medicated, thus fueling an even greater sense of urgency and anxiety.

In contrast, a good day would entail gaining complete control over one's balance and motor functions. For each PWP this means developing one's own special coping mechanisms. For me, this means breaking into Broadway musicals. In the most difficult times, I turn to The Fiddler on the Roof's "If I were a Rich Man." My comical singing and dancing lights up my brain and provides just enough energy to push me along my way.

My students and colleagues view my antics with skepticism.

I view them with humor, and a nod to Mr. Fox: my ordinary hero.

Julie Mertus, a professor at American University, was diagnosed with Parkinson's shortly after Michael J. Fox and has lived with it almost all of her adult life.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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