Now why does that strike me? I have never understood the sport of boxing or followed it in any form. That he was a great boxer, known a Cassius Clay in the early years, I knew from what i had read. And today there was coverage in every channel of his 70th birthday, cutting a cake with his shaking hands. Yes, he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, an untreatable and progressive degenerative diseases of the nervous system. And, he made public the fact that he suffered from this terrible disease, soon after his diagnosis. It has not stopped him from making public appearances on special occasions like today.
Although Parkinson’s disease mostly affects the elderly, Ali was only 42 years of age when he was diagnosed. Many believe that the repeated traumas sustained in the ring may have something to do with the early onset. The most obvious early symptoms of Parkinsons, are movement related, such as shaking, rigidity, slowness of movements and difficulty in walking and gait. Later, cognitive and behavioural problems may arise, ending with dementia in the advanced stages.
News of celebrity illness always sparks some interest in me, since as a doctor I am curious to know what so-and-so is suffering from. There was a recent announcement that Venus Williams is suffering from Sjogren’s syndrome, a not so common autoimmune disease. It is characterized by dryness if the mouth and eyes. Her sister, Serena had a pulmonary embolism the previous year, an extremely serious condition that put her in intensive care for some time. We have followed the drama of Leander Paes’s brain tumor that fortunately turned out not to be a tumor but a treatable condition, cysticercosis.
The point of all this, is that when celebrities, are forthright and open about illness, it does more for public education than anything else. The lay person has little exposure to the numerous diseases that afflict man, and is completely at sea, when forced to face any one of them. The media coverage of the illness of celebrities therefore forma a powerful education tool.Most Indians became aware of Myesthenia after Amitabh Bacchan’s diagnosis was made public. Unfortunately, more often that not, the trend in India is for celebrities to hide rather than reveal their illness. Recently, there was considerable confusion regarding the illness that Yuvraj Singh suffered from. And of course, we still do not know what Mrs Sonia Gandhi was operated for!!
And when sports persons recover from illness to perform at the highest level, it is inspiring. For example, Felipe Massa, the F1 driver, who suffered a freak head injury in July 2009 and was back at racing in 2010.
It is widely appreciated that, more was done for breast cancer awareness in the US, by the public announcement by the then President’s wife, Betty Ford, that she had breast cancer than any other single action. One hopes that Indian celebrities will realize that their celebrity status goes with some responsibilities, and use it to educate an ill informed public about disease.
Happy birthday Muhammed Ali!