Monday, October 8, 2012

Annette Funicello and the Ravages of Multiple Sclerosis

Annette Funicello
Walt Disney discovered Annette Funicello when she was only 12 years old, performing at a dance recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. Less than a year later, she'd be receiving 6,000 fan letters a month.

As a member of the original Mickey Mouse Club, Annette (really, she's always just been "Annette") became Disney's first superstar girl next door, arguably the most famous of all the Mouseketeers. When the series ended its first run in 1959, she stayed under contract with Disney, appearing in the movies The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey's Uncle. Beyond Disney, she was co-starred with fellow teen idol Frankie Avalon in the popular "Beach Party" movies of the 1960s.

She was pretty and vivacious. She could sing, she could dance. She could sell Skippy peanut butter. In 1992, Annette was named a Disney Legend.

1992 was also the year she publicly revealed she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system. Hers was the most debilitating kind of MS, the kind that gradually and relentlessly ended her ability to walk and to talk and to care for herself. Today, as Annette nears her 70th birthday, she requires constant care and is attended to by private nurses and her husband of 25 years, Glen Holt.

As the ravages of the disease took its toll, Annette withdrew from public life. In 1993, she founded the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases to fund research and treatment of MS and other neurological diseases. Her last movie appearance was in the 1995 telepic A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, based on her autobiography of the same name. Since then, she has rarely been seen except by her family and her closest friends.

Until now.

On Friday, the Canadian news show W5 presented Annette's heartbreaking and courageous story. For the first time, viewers get a look inside her home, where she must be physically lifted every day from her bed to her wheelchair and back again. We see the devotion of her husband, who talks to her constantly and takes her on daily outings, trying to keep her engaged even though she can only blink in response. This story vividly shows the cruel and devastating nature of MS, which afflicts more than 250,000 people in the U.S. alone. It also offers hope as it details a controversial treatment Annette underwent last year. And while that treatment only provided minor relief to Annette--her body is already horribly damaged by the disease--it could signal a breakthrough to patients worldwide who suffer from this most severe form of MS.

Full story (with video): Annette Funicello: Her Life With Multiple Sclerosis

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