Michael J. Fox show inspires Ellen-like Parkinson's buzz
A former music manager who used to photograph and hang with rock bands such as KISS, Bad Company and Foghat, 59-year-old David Slania of Rolling Meadows "outs" himself as a man with Parkinson's disease by declaring, "I used to be a rocker and now I'm a shaker."
If he wanted to accentuate that Parkinson's joke with a rim shot, the uncontrollable tremors in his left hand wouldn't allow it.
"If I were a drummer, the rest of the band would not be able to keep up with me," Slania quips. He says some of his involuntary movements make him look as if he's re-enacting the painfully uncoordinated "Elaine Benes' dance" from an old "Seinfeld" TV episode. "This shoulder will hit a wall, this leg will hit something and you just don't know where it will go," says Slania, who adds that Parkinson's tremors have robbed him of the ability to take non-blurry photographs.
While there is nothing amusing about having an incurable progressive disorder of the nervous system, people with Parkinson's still can be funny, Slania says. TV and movie icon Michael J. Fox hopes to prove that Thursday when he returns to the TV sitcom world with the NBC premiere of "The Michael J. Fox Show," about a TV news anchor with Parkinson's disease.
"That's the beauty of the show. It's going to make people think," says Slania, who hopes to do the same. Working with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Slania has organized a free and public "viewing party" Thursday night in the auditorium of Northwest Community Hospital, 800 W. Central Road in Arlington Heights. At 6 p.m., Slania will show "Just Around the Corner," a documentary about Parkinson's disease featuring Slania's friend Bob Benjamin. Fox's show debuts at 8 p.m. Thursday with a special one-hour premiere. Illinois is home to 50 such viewing parties, from small gatherings in private homes to large fundraisers.
The last time a TV sitcom fueled that kind of buzz might have been in 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres' character on the "Ellen" sitcom announced she was a lesbian.
"That's the power of a courageous role model," says Deborah W. Brooks, a finance executive who joined with Michael J. Fox in 2000 to launch the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which funds medical trials, including some in Illinois. People touched by Parkinson's want to share that moment when the affable Fox makes his disease part of prime-time comedy.
"They appreciate the audaciousness of it," says Brooks, the foundation co-founder, who has worked at Fox's side for 13 years and is now executive vice chairman of the charity that has grown to become the world's largest private funder of Parkinson's research. Seeing a fictional TV character tackle life with Parkinson's through the performance of a star who does the same thing in his real life can motivate people.
"They shift from being admirers to emulators," Brooks says.
Humor always has been a part of Fox's life, so now he finds humor in his life with Parkinson's. In the show, his character tries to call his wife's cellphone but his shaky fingers accidentally dial 911. The situation gets worse and funnier when he explains to police that he mis-dialed because "my drugs haven't kicked in yet."
Documentary subject Benjamin, who lives in New Jersey, says that happened to him.
"The thing about Parkinson's is that we all have our own version," Fox says in a video promoting his show. "No two of us are alike, so that's both frustrating and encouraging."
On his own path since he was diagnosed with the disease in 2006, Slania, a husband, father and grandfather, says he remembers originally getting ticked at Fox after the celebrity called Parkinson's a "distraction."
"It's a distraction, but when it's on your body, it's a huge distraction," Slania remembers thinking. "There's a lot of denial that goes along with it. People look at it as a sign of weakness, and no one wants to be weak."
Trying to ignore a barely noticeable tremor in his left hand, Slania finally visited a doctor, who diagnosed him with Parkinson's.
"I went in scared and came out terrified," Slania remembers.
As a coach for his young son's baseball and soccer teams, Slania remembers worrying that he would not be physically able to coach, or that a player might make fun of him in front of his son. Still coaching, Slania says he's never heard an unkind word. And now he's come around to embrace Fox's acceptance of Parkinson's.
"We've all got something. As soon as you can say, 'I've got this,' then it's OK," Slania says.
Part of his newfound attitude comes from his friendship with Chris Errera, a gifted musician and performer from Schaumburg. Working as Errera's business manager, Slania says he draws inspiration from Errera, who was born with a rare growth disorder, barely tops 4 feet in height and manages to play beautiful piano in spite of stubby fingers that are difficult to move.
When he heard Slania was organizing a viewing party, "I told him, 'I'm proud of you,'" says Errera, who often finds humor in his own physical limitations. "You show people how comfortable you are, the more comfortable they become."
Thursday night's viewing party at Northwest Community Hospital "is just a show of support for our Parkinson's people and all of those whose lives are touched by Parkinson's," says physical therapy assistant Sue Gribbon, who, along with speech pathologist Karuna Maddava, chairs the event and oversees a variety of exercise programs and therapy for people with Parkinson's. They host a support group that meets from 6-8:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every month at the Arlington Heights Senior Center, 1801 W. Central Road in Arlington Heights.
Slania says he's slowly come around to embrace Fox's feelings toward Parkinson's, and appreciates how the disease has helped him slow down and appreciate family, friends and the nonmaterial joys of life.
"Life is good. If you want it to be good, it's good," Slania says of his life since his diagnosis. "I've met so many people of character, it's been wonderful. I'm not a Parkinson's sufferer. I'm a Parkinson's recipient."
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