Like everyone else, I was saddened by the April 8 death of Annette Funicello from complications of multiple sclerosis. Funicello, who was 70 years old, had been diagnosed with MS in 1987.
That was a grim time to be diagnosed. In 1987, there were no FDA-approved therapies to help manage the disease, and far less was known about MS than is known today. Funicello, whose first and most persistent symptom was difficulty walking, reportedly decided to go public with her diagnosis some five years later to guard against rumors that she drank too much.
Funicello’s disease continued to progress; her balance deteriorated, and she eventually moved from using a cane to requiring a wheelchair. In her final years, she required round-the-clock care.
I am too young to have watched Funicello as a Mouseketeer or in her teen-oriented beach-blanket movies. My main memory of her is her hilarious and self-effacing performance in the 1988 “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.” As part of the fun, Funicello crafted Christmas cards (with Frankie Avalon, no less), demonstrating a stenciling technique requiring a toothbrush and green paint. Then she flashed a big, goofy, green-toothed grin when her host Pee-Wee Herman reminded her (too late, evidently) to wash the toothbrush before she used it to brush her teeth.
I have often thought back to that scene as an example of the way Funicello seemed always to maintain good cheer, despite her progressing disease. I’m sure she had her share of private moments when that good cheer lapsed, but in public she remained upbeat and determined to find a cure for MS.
Not that people with serious conditions such as MS should be required to put a brave face on it all the time. But Funicello’s upbeat attitude helped increase public interest in and understanding of MS, and it surely helped attract research funding.
By the time I was diagnosed in 2001, everyone knew Annette Funicello as a celebrity with MS. As such, she was a bright spot in a largely bleak landscape and an inspiration to me. I wasn’t aware of the extent to which her disease had progressed by then, but she was still smiling and staying positive. I have tried my best to follow her lead.
Read more about Annette Funicello and her support for MS research here.
Jennifer LaRue Huget was diagnosed with MS in 2001. A freelance writer and children's book author, she lives in Connecticut with her husband, two teenage kids, and two brown dogs. Her website is www.jenniferlaruehuget.com.