Is TV Ready for Parkinson’s?

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This Thursday will be a very special day for the Parkinson’s community: the debut of The Michael J. Fox show, a new TV comedy series starring the eponymous TV newscaster who lives with Parkinson’s disease. Michael has done so much to help this community — through the foundation he created, of course, but also by simply giving a “face” to Parkinson’s around the world. It is no exaggeration to say that he has transformed the way we look at PD and the people who live with it, and the level of urgency we all feel to bring resources to bear on ending it once and for all.

This event — which comes along 17 years after I joined the staff of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) — has prompted me to reflect on how our understanding of PD, especially because of the role of celebrities, has changed over the years.

Two months after I arrived at PDF, in an epic moment, the boxer Muhammad Ali — his Parkinson’s tremor publicly visible for the first time — struck the gong to open the 1996 Olympics. Over the next several years, Muhammad was joined by a series of other celebrities — among them, US Attorney General Janet Reno, Mike Fox himself, cycling star Davis Phinney, Pope John Paul II, and now Linda Ronstadt — who stepped forth, courageously and some of them at risk to their careers, to announce publicly their experience with a disease that had for almost two centuries been shrouded in shadows.

So how has our understanding of PD changed because of these brave witnesses to one of medicine’s most frustrating and complex enigmas? Here are three observations that I have made personally.

  1. First, as we have heard so often from our doctors, the Parkinson’s spectrum is one of the widest in medical science. From the age of onset (20s to 80s), to the range of symptoms (tremor, rigidity, fatigue and pain), to the ease or difficulty with which each person manages his or her disease, we have learned that the experiences among people with Parkinson’s range all over the map. Celebrities like Michael have communicated these varied experiences of Parkinson’s to the wider public. While we have come very far, we know we still have a long way to go in making Parkinson’s — including its pains and its potential treatments — a household word.
  2. Second, we have learned, to our disappointment, that identifying the secret of Parkinson’s disease and creating the medicines and surgical techniques that will control it better and with fewer side effects is turning out not to be a sprint, as many of us had hoped as recently as the late 1990s, but a marathon. Sadly, the past decade has been disappointing when it comes to new medications; out of more than 18 or so potential treatments tested in PD, only two have come to market. The good news, on the other hand, is that in that same decade, the basic science of understanding PD has thrived. And it is this basic science that will be serving as the platform for drug development in the next decade.
  3. And third, we see — in the stoic and heroic way in which celebs like Fox, Reno and Phinney play the cards they were dealt — that while people with Parkinson’s face inherent challenges, so many are using the experience of their disease as a means to help others. You see and hear this in the way our celebrity leaders raise awareness and funds for the disease. At PDF, we see this in the millions of folks around the country with whom we speak every day … in the way our 200-plus PDF Research Advocates work at the front lines with scientists in their quest for the cure … and in the work of the 350 artists who are active with the PDF Creativity and PD Project, and who use artwork as a means of coping. While the disease is a challenge, many have used it to help others. For the rest of us, the example they set is both inspiring and humbling.

So is TV ready for Parkinson’s? I have a hunch that thanks to these public figures and the everyday people who are busy raising awareness in their own communities, it is. We are at a place where the general public may be ready to welcome into their homes a TV character who — in both his real and his fictional life — lives with Parkinson’s disease.

What do readers think?

12 thoughts on “Is TV Ready for Parkinson’s?

  1. ritamorgan

    I am assuming its a comedy programme . I hope it will show how different it can be for some and not others . You cannot put Parkinson’s sunder one umbrella can you . Especially as it progresses .

  2. Margaret Dick

    I believe Michael Fox has done a great service in educating the general public about Parkinson’s. I think his show will be a hit. As a Parkinson’s patient, I feel real encouragement to continue my exercise as well as “living life to the fullest.”. In other words, I am not an invalid!!! Michael Fox is an inspiration!!!

  3. Martha Landeros

    Is this article available in Spanish? I have many friends/relatives in Mexico who are eager to receive The Michael J. Fox Show. Or do you know if NBC transmits through Cable Channel to Mexico? THANK YOU!!!

  4. John Weber

    Very excited to start watching the new Michael J. Fox television show as I too have PD. MJF has done so much to bring awareness of this disease to public as well as his great foundation which is doing great things towards finding a solution to this mysterious disease. I really hope that his new show is a major hit and if anyone could pull this off it is MJF.

  5. Christine Job

    I applaud the celebrities that are bringing Parkinson Disease to the forefront. The public must be made aware that Parkinson’s has many symptoms other than trembling.
    The disease is a “brain” chemical problem and may and can effect anything from the head to the feet, and everything in-between.
    It is a disease that effects physical, emotional and social abilities.
    Anyone that has Parkinson’s is fighting a battle “every day” just to try to live as normal a life as can be possible.

  6. Anna Cowan Hoyt

    I’m excited to see his show! Not only will he raise even more awareness.. he will bring happiness + laughter to those living with PD and their families/caregivers!

  7. Angie Baker

    I am really looking forward to Michael’s show! I will start watching it in a minute. I have PD and am so glad that he is bring better recognition to this disease!!

  8. Peggy Smith

    I am a care giver to the man in my life he has PD and its real bad he has had two DBS which have help some. This show is great people look at them like they are drunk.

  9. Kathleen Reardon

    It used to be very difficult to talk with doctors about non motor symptoms. There was one, shared view of Parkinson’s disease and it wasn’t the one most patients were living. Now we’re recognizing the wide variety of paths PD takes and Michael’s show helps that and it helps people who don’t have PD to realize that light, love and fun exist after a diagnosis. In fact, many of us become more creative than we’d previously been. And that’s another gift!

    The show is great. Loved watching it. Looking forward to the next one. Thanks Michael. Thanks Robin and everyone at PDF too!

  10. Jill B. Wood

    Thank you Michael J. Fox for your courage to do a Television show bringing attention to Parkinson’s Disease. My Father and younger brother suffered with this debilitating disease. My understanding at that time was Parkinson’s was not heredity. I was totally unprepared to be diagnosed last December at age eighty with Parkinsons Disease. Adjusting to the many challenges in my active life have been very difficult. The side effects of medications, progression of disease, and major concerns of care, family and preparedness for future are daily hurdles for me. Educating the public is crucial for Parkinson patients ability to feel comfortable in public. The first books I read and gave to family and friends were by Michael J Fox. Public awareness is crucial to understanding this disease and need to participate in helping to find a cause and cure. Thank you for showing me and others There Is A Life After Parkinson’s.

  11. Patty Wargo

    I watched Michael’s show the other night and loved it. As a person with PD, having and keeping a sense of humor about the challenges we face with this disease, is essential to my well being. One thing I hope they bring out in the show is the wide variety of symptoms experienced by PWP’s. The general public don’t understand the variety of effects that PD can have on individuals. I am grateful to Michael Fox for his openness about PD and his energy and commitment to finding a cure and better treatments.

  12. E Hoekstra

    I was disappointed after watching the show. Many PD people must cut back or quit their jobs when symptoms become unmanageable. To suggest that after 5 years, Fox would be invited back as a news anchor is quite unrealistic. I love MJF’s sense of humor and optimism, but he didn’t do justice to the challenges of the disease.
    Even so, I admire him for his openness about PD and all he’s doing to find a cure.

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