When guitar picker Clay Walker lost coordination in his right hand while playing basketball with friends in 1996, the Texan was justifiably nervous. "At first I was kind of laughing about it," he recalls. "But then I started having double vision and dizziness, and I couldn't stand up. And I realized, whoa, this is pretty serious." Walker went straight to a doctor, who diagnosed the chart-topping country singer with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic neurological disorder that attacks the brain and spinal cord, affecting 400,000 Americans.
Walker was befuddled by the diagnosis. "There was so little that had been publicized about MS at the time that I didn't know what it was," he says. Forget playing the guitar. According to the doctor who diagnosed him, the prognosis was grim. "He said that I would be in a wheelchair in four years and dead in eight."
There are four types:
Relapsing-remitting. This is the most common form. You have flare-ups followed by periods without symptoms, called recovery.
Primary-progressive. With this type, you do not get the ups and downs. Your symptoms get worse over time.
Secondary-progressive. You get flares and recovery periods at the start, then symptoms steadily worsen.
Progressive-relapsing. This form is very rare. Symptoms worsen from the start. You experience...
Luckily, that doctor was woefully misinformed. Symptoms of MS and their progression vary from person to person. They can be mild, such as numbness in the arms and legs, or severe, with paralysis or loss of vision. After Walker suffered two more attacks that year, his neurologist put him on a drug that halted the progression of the disease, and he's been in remission ever since.
Walker was appalled at how in-the-dark his first doctor was, so he decided to do something about it. "I figured with whatever celebrity I do have, I was going to get information out there for the people who don't know," he says. He didn't give up playing music, and in 2003 he created Band Against MS (www.bandagainstms.org), a nonprofit charity committed to providing educational information and assistance for those living with MS and funding programs to find a cure. Last month, Band Against MS produced a benefit concert in Nashville to raise money for MS research. And for MS Awareness Week, March 8-14, he'll be doing 30-second radio PSAs to support Band Against MS.
Walker's come a long way from that first doctor's visit. He and his wife now have a toddler and a brand-new baby at home. Quite a change from thinking he wouldn't walk his then-6-month-old daughter down the aisle. And his guitar picking is doing just fine as well. His new single, "She Won't Be Lonely Long," is rocking up the charts.