The news of her passing shook me, like I'd lost a dear friend or a member of my family. Annette Funicello was more than just a Mousketeer, beach blanket beauty or a Skippy peanut butter mom to me. She was a member of the MS community that is my extended family. A family where bonds are made not by blood, but by having to confront the challenge of living with an autoimmune disease.
I was diagnosed the same year as Annette, yet, as anyone with MS knows, no two people with MS are alike. When Annette reported her diagnosis to the world (to combat rumors of alcoholism; she had trouble with her gait), she had already been suffering with it for years. The next year she opened the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation.
I'd seen her in the news from time to time, first with a cane, then in a wheelchair. The girl I loved watching in The Mickey Mouse Club, the princess who always won Frankie's heart, was slowly deteriorating. I couldn't wrap my head around it.
As a health advocate, I explain to newly diagnosed patients we are all like snowflakes. Our stories of MS differ from one another. MS is an unpredictable disease with countless symptoms. They may include difficulty with walking, speech, vision, bowel and bladder or memory. One person's experience is different from another's.
There are different types of MS as well. I have relapsing remitting MS, experiencing periods of attacks with a worsening of neurologic function, followed by partial or complete recovery of symptoms. Annette had a more progressive MS, perhaps with some periods of relapsing, followed by a steady worsening of her bodily functions.
In her biography "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story" (1994), Annette detailed her life and struggles with Multiple Sclerosis in her usual cheery voice. Like the storybook princess she was, she spoke of her good fortune in meeting Walt Disney when he spotted her in a dance recital. He catapulted her into becoming America's princess through The Mickey Mouse Club and other Disney vehicles, always guarding her all-American girl image in her television and movie appearances.
I've known directly, or indirectly, of famous and not so famous people who passed away from complications of MS (no one dies directly from the disease). There were friends and colleagues I worked with in the fight against MS. And then there were famous people, such as Richard Pryor, Barbara Jordan, Margaret Leighton, Ronnie Lane and Madelyn Rhue.
But Annette, well Annette was different for me. I felt I knew her. Her indomitable spirit in the face of adversity made me proud to count her as part of my MS family. She threw herself into the limelight through her book, cameo appearances and charity work. She showed the world that the face of MS could be brave, beautiful and intelligent.
She will always be a princess to me and to the millions of fans who loved her. Rest in peace, sweet Annette.
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