Michael J. Fox's Personal Battle
In 1991, at the height of his career, Michael's life took an unexpected turn. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a chronic neurological disorder that can cause debilitating tremors.
At first, Michael kept his diagnosis private. He went on to produce and star in the comedic series Spin City . Then, as his symptoms worsened and became harder to disguise, Michael went public with his battle.
Dr. Oz says people suffering from this disease can sometimes manage their uncontrollable tremors with medication…but not always.
"How much medication did you have to take in preparation for today?" Oprah asks.
"A boatload," Michael says.
"I think the biggest frustration is when I want to sit down for a second, and I can't sit down…like my legs won't stop moving," he says.
To illustrate his point, Michael says Parkinson's is like having a 4-year-old child climbing around on your lap all the time, pulling on your arms and legs. "You're just trying to be patient and focus on what you need to do," he says.
Michael says simple tasks like brushing his teeth and getting out of bed have become more challenging.
Listen to Michael describe his morning routine.
Dr. Oz says he first met Michael in 1990 when he was chief resident at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital. In preparation for a starring role in Doc Hollywood , Michael shadowed Dr. Oz as he made rounds and treated patients.
They met again in New York, and sat down with Michael's wife of 20 years, actress Tracy Pollan. Dr. Oz says Michael's latest book Always Looking Up reveals details of their Hollywood love story and describes Tracy as Michael's "rock."
"I think what she is is much more special than being a rock," Michael says. "Rocks are rigid and nonyielding, and she's very fluid."
Even when he's symptomatic, Michael says his wife sees past the shaking and physical challenges. "She sees who I am, and she likes me as much as she ever liked me," he says. "We have a sense of humor about life, and we enjoy life. We feel every day that we're so blessed."
How does a dad explain Parkinson's to small children? Michael says he simplifies the disease by explaining that his brain works differently than other brains.
"I won't talk in terms of something wrong or something broken or some illness or sickness," he says. "I'll just say, 'My brain doesn't get the messages the way your brain sends the messages to your body.'"
At times, Tracy says the children describe Michael as "shaky Dad." "They would never say 'Parkinson's' or they wouldn't say 'sick,'" she says. "['Shaky' is] sort of more of a visual description to them."
"I am shaky Dad," Michael says.
Michael says living with a chronic disease has helped him realize that every little moment is special. "If I'm sitting watching TV or something, and my kids come and want to show me something or want to ask me something, I just made up my mind that there's nothing that I'm doing at any time that's more important than that," he says. "I don't know that I would think that way before this happened. … So as long as I can get there, I'll be there."
When the tremors subside, Michael likes to lace up his skates and enjoy a favorite childhood pastime—ice hockey.
After his sit-down interview, Michael asks Dr. Oz to meet him at Wollman Rink in New York City's Central Park.
"I was a little worried he might need a little help on the ice," Dr. Oz says. "Boy, was I wrong."
Watch as Michael glides across the ice.
Other times, diminished symptoms aren't as easily explained. While filming a documentary about optimism for ABC—Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist—Michael traveled to Bhutan, a kingdom in the Himalayas that measures the gross national happiness of its citizens.
"I don't know whether it was the altitude or the thinning of the blood or whatever, but I had much less symptoms," he says. "It was just an amazing place, and it really was special."
For years, this has been a major initiative for his organization, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research .
Embryonic stem cell research is a controversial topic in American politics. Opponents and anti-abortion activists believe using human embryos in the name of science is immoral. Supporters of the research believe the findings could help treat millions of men and women living with ailments like Parkinson's, cancer and heart disease.
Michael believes President Obama's decision is a step in the right direction. "It was absolutely crucial that this research be unfettered and allowed today to go forward in a responsible way," he says. "People's concerns, I understand, and I just have faith in our scientists and the research community that they'll do this ethically and to good purpose."
"For example, if you say no federal funding for stem cell research, that means if there's a university or hospital that receives any funding for anything, they can't do even privately funded stem cell research," he says. "The kind of iterations of impact were really severe."
Watch as Dr. Oz explains the medical benefits of stem cells.
Thanks to recent scientific discoveries, Dr. Oz says stem cells aren't the only solution. "We went to a place we never thought we would go," he says. "I can take a little bit of your skin, take those cells and get them to go back in time so they're like they were when you were first made."
Dr. Oz says these skin cells, which contain your genes and are less prone to cancer, will be the ones that are ultimately used to cure Parkinson's. "I think we're single digit years away from making a big impact in the lives of [people with] Parkinson's disease, but also diabetics and heart attack victims," he says.
"Having said that, somebody said to me one time that happiness grows in direct proportion to your acceptance and in inverse proportion to your expectations," he says. "So if you can just kind of say: 'Well, this is what I have today. Now, I didn't have a choice about this, but I have a million other choices I can make today. I can choose where I go. I can choose how I feel about where I go.' … If I make those choices well, I'm going to be a happy person."
When he first made it big, Michael says he was Michael, the actor. Then, he became Michael, the actor with Parkinson's. When he left Hollywood, he says he wondered if he would just be Michael with Parkinson's…but he's become so much more.
"I'm a dad, I'm a husband, I'm an activist, I'm a writer and I'm just a student of the world," he says. "This is one fact of my life, but it's not the totality of my life. It doesn't define me."
After spending time with Michael, Dr. Oz sees an opportunity to change that perception. "[People] don't even see you shaking anymore once they're close to you. They look into your eyes, and they see your soul, and that's what's interesting to them," he says. "All this stuff sort of dissolves away into your peripheral vision, and all of a sudden, there's just Michael there. That's what's beautiful about it."
In Always Looking Up , Michael writes that for everything this disease has taken, something with greater value has been given. "If I hadn't faced this, I don't know that I'd have the family that I have now," he says. "I don't know that I'd be doing the things that I'd be doing now. I don't know that I'd be writing. I don't know that I'd be traveling."
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