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Making Steps Count

April 11th, 2011 by Jessika

Michael J. Fox at the 1988 Emmy Awards (Photo by Alan Light)

The first time I watched “Back to the Future” I fell in love with Michael J. Fox. He was cute, funny, and, of course, he had access to a rad car. What more could a girl want?

I made my parents put on “Back to the Future” over and over again when I was a kid to the point I knew nearly all of the lines. And when the two sequels came out, those too became favorites of mine. I wanted to travel with Fox everywhere he went.

As the years passed, I outgrew my childhood crush on Fox. While I still loved to watch the “Back to the Future” movies, I seemed to see less and less of him on the big and small screen. In 1998, I finally learned why.

Fox had been diagnosed in 1991 with young-onset Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disease affecting the central nervous system. But he didn’t go public with his diagnosis until 1998. Since then, Fox has used his celebrity status to champion for a better understanding of Parkinson’s, raising millions of dollars for research.

Until Fox went public with the disease, I knew little about it. I knew the great boxer Muhammad Ali had it, and I had seen footage of Ali shaking quite a bit. So, it was safe to say that Parkinson’s affected the brain. But that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge.

When Fox went public, though, I wanted find out more about the disease. To do that, I read articles and searched the Internet. What I found scared me. There was no cure for the degenerative disorder. Patients only had medication to mask the symptoms. This was unacceptable. I did not want to watch Fox get worse.

Fox didn’t want to watch that either.

“If I let it affect everything, it’s gonna own everything,” said Fox in a 2007 article for Esquire. “I don’t deny it or pretend it’s not there, but if I don’t allow it to be bigger than it is, then I can do everything else.”

The same year Fox went public he appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee to ask for more funding for Parkinson’s research. He did this without any medication to show members of Congress what Parkinson’s looks like, and it was disconcerting to watch. Fox shook uncontrollably as he spoke into the microphone and at times stumbled over his words. This was not the Marty McFly I remembered so fondly from my youth.

Still unsatisfied with the research being done, Fox started his own charity in 2000: The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The foundation’s primary purpose is to find a cure and improve current patient therapies. To date, it has helped fund more than $200 million in research for the disease.

But his advocacy work doesn’t stop there. He has written three books that all discuss the disease in some shape or form and he has vocally supported stem cell research.

Just a few days ago Fox helped bring attention to Parkinson’s and his foundation another way. He, with the help of his daughter, flipped the switch to light New York’s Empire State Building orange and white in honor of Parkinson’s awareness month.

Fox truly is an inspiration, using his celebrity to educate the world about a disease he struggles with on a daily basis.

“For everything this disease has taken, something with greater value has been given—sometimes just a marker that points me in a new direction that I might not otherwise have traveled,” writes Fox in his 2009 book Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. “So, sure, it may be one step forward and two steps back, but after a time with Parkinson’s, I’ve learned that what is important is making that one step count; always looking up.”

Fox has made so many steps count, and I look up to him for that.

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