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MS Goes 'West'

'West Wing' TV depiction of disease may be less than realistic

MONDAY, Nov. 26, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Sick presidents make for good drama. Grover Cleveland suffered from mouth cancer and had a secret operation on a yacht. An adrenal disease nearly crippled John F. Kennedy, and two heart attacks hobbled Dwight D. Eisenhower during his term. And so it goes in the world of fiction, too. Just ask any fan of NBC's "The West Wing," whose main character, President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, is coping with a scandal over his cover-up of his multiple sclerosis (MS).

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is thrilled with "The West Wing" and gave it a top award for raising public awareness. But some fans say President Bartlet doesn't look or act like a typical person with the disease.

"If this is a reflection of MS, it's the most optimistic reflection," says Dr. Thomas Leist, who treats MS patients at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia.

But others point out that MS comes in many forms. "It's a quirky disease. That's what makes it so ideal for 'The West Wing,'" says Arney Rosenblat, spokeswoman for the national society.

"The West Wing," which airs Wednesday nights, is consistently among the 10 highest-rated shows on American television. Martin Sheen stars as the president, a Democrat running for a second term despite his belated revelation that he hid his MS from voters and even most of his staff.

Bartlet rarely shows signs that he has the disease, although a bout with fever raised fears that his health could deteriorate, and MS doesn't appear to have affected his ability to run the country. However, he does take drugs to treat the illness.

Bartlet has had to educate the public about his disease, reflecting the efforts of real-life activists. "When you say 'MS,' most people think of muscular dystrophy," says Tom Crain, a retired teacher in Santa Cruz, Calif., who suffers from the disease. "They don't quite realize what MS is. When you say multiple sclerosis, they're still a little baffled."

An estimated 250,000 to 350,000 Americans, mostly women, have MS. The disease appears to be caused by a malfunction of the immune system that causes it to attack the central nervous system.

MS has a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from tingling, numbness and pain to muscle weakness, impaired balance and mental problems.

Crain, who is 54, watches "West Wing" regularly and says Bartlet's cover-up accurately reflects the conflicted lives of many MS sufferers. Crain kept his disease from his co-workers until he could no longer hide his frequent falls.

"From the first time you get the diagnosis, you're hesitant to let people know," he says. "In almost a bashful and very embarrassed way, you stay in the background with it. You don't say much until it becomes evident that you may be limping or have tremors. Little by little it comes out."

Leist says that's the problem with "West Wing." In his opinion, the show doesn't show the disease emerging, little by little.

While MS is a variable disease with ups and downs, its sufferers usually don't go very long without noticeable symptoms, he says. "The great majority of MS patients are fatigued very early on, and they have reduced stamina over periods of time. What they can do during the day is curtailed a little bit. [Bartlet] has MS, but it doesn't affect him. It's history, more or less. It has not curtailed him even when he stands out in the rain and gets completely wet."

Bartlet also doesn't appear to suffer from exacerbation of symptoms during stress or an inability to "multi-task," common problems among people with MS, Leist says. "Everything becomes equally important, and you cannot focus on one thing. If you think of a chief executive, that's what he needs to do. He needs to hear 500 people scream at him and filter out the most important scream."

Crain says the show may be misleading, especially if MS sufferers come to think that drugs, like those taken by Bartlet, will make their symptoms disappear. But he says "West Wing" also is inspiring.

"He's got probably the most influential job on the planet, he's willing to let the public know he's got MS, and he's got every intention of living a productive life," Crain says. "I was excited to see that. For most people it's probably pretty uplifting, not only because the disease is getting exposure or awareness, but the fact that anyone with MS can lead a productive life, regardless."

>What To Do

Learn the basics about MS in these fact sheets from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Curious about the plot lines of "The West Wing"? This NBC Web site will give you the basics.

SOURCES: Interviews with Arney Rosenblat, spokeswoman National Multiple Sclerosis Society, New York City; Tom Crain, retired teacher and MS activist, Santa Cruz, Calif.; Thomas Leist, M.D., Ph.D., neurologist, Comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis Center, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia; photo courtesy of NBC
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