Nightclub performer Lola Falana has sung and danced all her teen-age and adult life. In 1975, she was nominated for a Tony award for her performance in the Broadway musical "Doctor Jazz." Two years ago, at the age of 45, Falana was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease of the central nervous system. Others may have predicted the end of her career, but in July, Falana returned with her act to the Las Vegas stage. She will perform Wednesday at the Southern California Chapter Multiple Sclerosis Society's "Dinner of Champions," honoring Laker Coach Pat Riley at the Century Plaza Hotel. In addition to funding research to find the cause and cure, the nonprofit organization provides support programs, clinics and information for patients and their families. From her home in Las Vegas, Falana talked about her recovery.
"I had kept a very physical agenda. I'd say one-third of my act was dancing. I was always moving and singing and talking. A star has to be bright, shiny, energetic, spirited. It takes awesome amounts of energy if you're going to be great at it. I worked out regularly, and I worked constantly, so I was keeping my body honed. There are singers who just stand in front of the mike, but that's not me, not if you come from a world of movement.
"In 1987, I knew that things were changing slowly, ever so slowly, but they were things I could make excuses for. Then I woke up one morning and the entire left side of my body was paralyzed. All the muscles--the chest, the vocal cords, the tongue, everything down to my feet and toes. I had trouble hearing, seeing, speaking, and the left arm had no sense at all. I woke up one day and one-half was dead. I went to a neurologist, and the diagnosis was multiple sclerosis.
"I refused all crutches, canes, anything. I'd rather crawl on my belly. I wanted no crutch, no excuse whatsoever. I remember sliding against walls and holding on to every piece of furniture. I had a walker at the foot of my bed, but I wouldn't use it. The muscles that did work, I didn't want them to get lazy. Most of all, the mind needed to know that my soul was not going to allow any outside force to help me walk.
"My recovery began with the word God. I wasn't as devoted before, but I had been depending more and more on my inner spiritual world for strength and survival, which I think prepared me for this. From the moment I heard the diagnosis I was calm about it. I said to the doctor, 'Mister, I will be in high heels in a month.' And I was.
"Starting in the second week, a therapist came to my apartment and helped me every day. I kept the therapist for a few months. Once you lose all that muscle tone, you have to rebuild it. In a year and a half, I had four attacks. The last attack I had was February, 1988, and that's the last attack I'm ever going to have. Since February, I went into a different state of mind. I decided this thing can't come in and out of my life. Somebody has to be in power over this thing, and that works by faith. For the last few months, I've been walking every single night for an hour. I go to the gym in the afternoon almost every day, and I keep moving.
"I'm perfect now. I started working in July at the Sands, and since then I've been full steam ahead. I'm just beginning to get bookings around the country for 1990. A lot of people hear your name associated with MS and think for all time you're sick, but it's up to me to let them know I'm well. I think most people are excited that I'm back. But I don't want to do just nightclubs ever again. I don't want to live on the road. I'd like to do a talk show for kids. I may go in to record (an album). I have a book contract coming through.
"As soon as I was able to walk and drive my car, I started going to patients' homes on my own time. People come to me and say, 'I know someone with MS and he'd love to talk to you.' I've collected about 19, 20 people I visit. They've become my friends and my extended family. I have dinner with their families. And I have developed a large telephone network. I call patients all over the country. I just tell them it's Lola, and I heard we have something in common, MS.
"Because I'm a performer and I do, I did-- use the past tense--have MS, it's just natural for the Multiple Sclerosis Society to ask me to perform for their benefit. As I know, it collects funds and disperses them for research. Without the research, there's no medication for the people who don't have the inner faith to overcome the disease with God. They need a cure.