David L. Lander is spending the 20th anniversary of his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis today sharing his story and his humor with Utahns who share his disease. And that in itself is pretty funny, given that the man the world knows best at Squiggy on "Laverne & Shirley" spent the first 15 years trying to hide the disease.
He chose to pretend he didn't have the degenerative neuromuscular disorder because of what the doctor said when he gave a name to the numbness in Lander's hands and feet, the falling down, the increasing difficulty walking: Your eyes will go, he remembers being told. Your memory will be shot eventually. And you'll end up using a wheelchair. You'll have bladder problems. And there are no real treatments. He was told to avoid hot baths and showers, to stay out of warm climates.
"He was telling me to cut myself off. 'If this is what his attitude is and if this is MS and what people think of it, don't tell them,' " he decided.
So the actor claimed he had a back problem that would heal.
But times change, and that's part of the message Lander offers in his very humorous book, "Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody."
Lander has changed, too. Now he's a national MS spokesman, visiting about 30 cities a year on behalf of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He spoke Saturday at Jordan Commons, a visit sponsored by MS ActiveSource.
First, the disease changed his social life. Then it changed his career. He started using a stunt double whenever he got a role in some detective show. He claimed a car accident ruptured a disk.
Five years ago, Penny Marshall told him that the Dinner of Champions was looking for someone to honor and would like to honor him.
It was basically the right time to admit the diagnosis, he said.
"I was sick of having the disease and wondering who I had told and did he tell anyone?" Lander said. Ironically, "stress will cause an exacerbation and what the heck does hiding it do?"
He talked to a big shot in the industry who was interested in raising money for MS. If I came out, he asked, would you hire me? And, in fact, that man has continued to see that Lander has had enough acting work to pay for his health insurance. But he gets discouraged because the parts are never the meaty ones he wants. "Acting is all about confidence and a lot of MS is losing confidence," he told the Deseret Morning News. The roles he now gets don't test his confidence at all. They're not as challenging as he'd like.
Physically, though, the doctor's words were more bleak than the reality he has carved for himself. Three times a week, Lander does physical therapy. He takes a drug that was unheard when he was diagnosed, Avonex, once a week. For a while he had taken another medication by shot three times a week. Avonex works better for him.
He sees a chiropractor who has experience with MS patients. He never misses his flu shot, because influenza can be dreadful for someone with MS. And he's "satisfied" with his treatment plan and what it does for him.
His legs and fingers are not numb, which is a very big deal. He walks well, though slowly, and never hesitates to ask for a ride in large areas like airports. Climbing stairs is more problematic, if there's no handrail.
And he keeps his sense of humor. Since his MS leaves him with an overactive immune system, he jokingly wonders whether getting AIDS, which creates a suppressed immune system, would cure him.
Some of his humor, he admits, seems odd to people who haven't lived his disease. But when he jokes about it with others who have MS, they totally get it and laugh, he said.
And he recognizes that the disease could limit him more than it does.
His take-away message has a couple of parts. First, it's important to keep laughing.
And the importance of early treatment can't be overstated. He avoided things for too long. You have to admit you have an illness before you will commit to treating it.When he was diagnosed, he devoured books, most of them medical tomes written fairly joylessly. His favorite parts were always the brief anecdotes. He decided his book would be more like that and online reviews say he succeeded. People with MS and people without it write about laughing hysterically in certain parts.