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Funicello exhibited courage with a smile

Guest commentary

Valerie Benton

Valerie Benton

My heart sank. The news that Annette Funicello died flashed across the television screen during “Entertainment Tonight.” Her face and the recap of her life — from her days as a mouseketeer on Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club” to interviews focusing on the reason she disappeared from the limelight — stirred my emotions.

You see, Annette Funicello was one of my heroes. You’re probably laughing, thinking that a mouseketeer makes an unlikely hero. You’re right, it does. But a woman who remains positive and wears a smile in the face of a grave battle is the most likely of heroes.

Annette Funicello fought an invisible foe: Multiple Sclerosis.

Diagnosed in the early ’90s with this mysterious neuromuscular disease at a time when there were few medical options and no cure, she faced incredible odds.

For those who aren’t aware of the inner workings of this disease, M.S. attacks the central nervous system and is likened to an electrical system that “shorts out” in places throughout the body. Lesions on the nerves or scarred nerves left by healed lesions cause the body to malfunction when messages are sent from the brain along the nerves, telling limbs or organs to work. Because of the damaged nerves, there are delays or interruptions that cause the limbs or organs not to respond.

The result is overwhelming fatigue, eventual complete dysfunction of limbs and organs, including eyes and ears. People with M.S. often lose their vision, their hearing, speech, ability to swallow, function in their arms, hands, legs, lungs, and internal organs. Whatever the nerves touch, M.S. can reach.

No two M.S. patients are alike. They each deal with their own losses in terms of what functions the disease robs.

But until the end comes, people with M.S. generally deal with the loss of quality of life. Annette Funicello was no exception. She lost the use of her legs,and eventually her speech.

I remember reading an article in People magazine of her early trials with M.S., before her fans and friends knew of her diagnosis. She would stagger or stumble on the film set with Frankie Avalon or in a restaurant on her way to meet a friend for lunch, all the while trying to keep up a good front. Because of her public persona, she was advised that rumors that she was drinking might be started by people who misunderstood her awkward gait.

So she mustered the courage to come forward, to go public and tell her side of the story, in hopes of helping others.

That’s when Annette Funicello became my hero.

Yeah, I had watched the Disney sweetheart as a child and was entertained by the wholesome young woman who represented the early image — the ’60s family image of Disney — well. She was a role model for young women wanting to have good, clean fun. As a young girl, I was a devoted fan.

But when I took up my own battle with M.S., she became so much more to me — a mentor for facing this disease with a smile. I realized that if she could tell the world that she had M.S. and that was the reason she couldn’t walk with the same grace and poise she once did, then I could certainly share my diagnosis with family and close friends.

If Annette Funicello could use her struggle to help other people with M.S., then I could set aside my own inhibitions and use my struggles to help ease other people’s suffering. If she could be transparent and an encouragement to others, so could I. Her courage has been my example for bravery in the face of this ugly disease.

The sad part is that Annette Funicello was holding out for a cure. In my lifetime, I have seen more than half a dozen new medications come out on the market to help lessen the symptoms, deter the progression and, more recently, reduce the effects of M.S. on individuals. Like her, we pray for a cure for a disease that still leaves the question: What causes it?

Annette Funicello died Monday at age 70 without answers to those questions. She leaves many behind to carry on with the battle. I pray that I will follow her lead as I continue to wage my personal battle with this disease.

In the meantime, know that my balance may be slightly off occasionally, that I may walk most days with a limp while I lean heavily on a cane, and other days, I may be seated in a wheelchair because my legs can’t be trusted. My speech may be lazy when my body is weary with fatigue. Or I may be too tired some days to join the rest of the world.

Regardless of how I feel, I will try never to forget the words of Annette Funicello, who carried M.S. with dignity: “If you can smile, it makes all the difference.”

Valerie Davis Benton is a former award-winning journalist and published fiction author with more than 30 years of experience in journalism, public relations and marketing. She was officially diagnosed with M.S. in 1996, but experienced symptoms for nearly 10 years before the diagnosis.