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He Is Facing Toughest Test : Recovery: Former USC track star Max Truex undergoes a rare operation in an attempt to fight back against Parkinson's disease.

March 14, 1990|MAL FLORENCE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Max Truex was a seemingly tireless running machine while competing for USC in the the mid-1950s.

Standing only 5 feet 5 and weighing 130 pounds, Truex covered a lot of ground from the mile to the 10,000 meters with an economical, relentless stride. It was said that he had wheels for legs.

A former world high school record-holder in the mile from Warsaw, Ind., Truex became a world-class distance runner at USC in an era dominated by Europeans.

He won the NCAA cross-country championship in 1957 and set an American record in the 5,000 meters. He also won the 10,000 meters at the National AAU meet in 1956 and 1959.

Then, as an Air Force lieutenant in 1960, he finished sixth in the 10,000 at the Olympic Games in Rome.

That standing may not seem noteworthy but it was, considering that his time of 28:50.2 was the fastest ever run by an American. It was also the highest placing in that race by an American since the 1912 Olympics.

Truex continued to run, if only recreationally, while he was a trial attorney for Los Angeles County specializing in real estate litigation.

Then, he literally hit a wall about 10 years ago. Tests showed he had Parkinson's disease, an insidious affliction that affects about 600,000 Americans.

The dictionary definition of Parkinson's is "a chronic progressive nervous disease of later life that is marked by tremor and weakness of resting muscles and by a peculiar gait."

That definition is a euphemism in Truex's case.

Dr. Robert Iacono, the son of Paul Iacono, a USC track letterman in 1944, recalled his first meeting in 1987 with Truex in Tucson, where Iacono practices.

"He was about the sickest guy from Parkinson's that I have ever seen," Iacono said. "He had bruises all over him from falling. He would start walking and couldn't stop, blasting into a wall and falling over on his face."

Truex's wife, Kay, remembers only too vividly here husband's condition.

"He would careen across the room, hitting the wall and bouncing off," she said. "He would freeze in certain positions. He couldn't get himself out of those positions and our kids and I would come along to get him moving again.

"We would have to feed him because he couldn't manipulate a knife and fork and, even when we would feed him, he couldn't move the food to the back of his mouth and swallow it."

Iacono said the old-fashioned expression for Parkinson's is shaking palsy.

"What happens is that you lose cells in the brain that produce a chemical called dopamine, which is a cousin of adrenaline," he said. "A patient feels tired and has flu-like symptoms at times.

"Then a person notices that when his hands are resting they have a little tremor.

"The real kicker is that it stops you. When you run out of this chemical, it's like running out of gas and you stop moving.

"Once a patient gets moving, he locks up again. He loses stability and falls over backward. And a person can't stop once he gets moving. Max would walk faster and faster until he walked into a wall."

Iacono, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of Arizona, was referred to Truex by his father, who in turn was contacted by Jim Slosson, a former USC assistant track coach and half-miler.

Slosson remained close to Truex after the runner left USC. Truex even lived for a while on a ranch in Van Nuys owned by Slosson's grandmother.

"Max called me in a whispered voice and said, 'Would you please help me,' " Iacono recalled.

"A Mexico City transplant team had some early results by transplanting patients' own adrenal glands into their brains. Max started hounding me to get him an adrenal transplant.

"He was still alert enough to follow all the news on this. Then he figured out that the transplants weren't working out for people who were real sick with Parkinson's, or were older.

"So he started pushing for a fetal transplant."

Iacono said that a medical team in Sweden had performed some fetal transplants in the early 1980s, taking nerve tissue from an aborted fetus and implanting it into the brain of patients with severe cases of Parkinson's disease.

Iacono said the procedure has rarely been done in the United States.

"Yale has done four cases and there has been one case in Denver," he said. "They had to use private money because even though the ethics committee of the National Institutes of Health had approved fetal tissue transplants for research, the current secretary of health has put a moratorium on federal money for the procedure."

Iacono said that Truex couldn't get signed up for an operation in Colorado and couldn't make contact with anyone at Yale.

"So it was virtually unavailable," Iacono said. "People were dragging their feet. They didn't want to start a project that couldn't be funded by the government, or a project that could be controversial with right-to-life groups.

"But Max was dying. He couldn't wait."

Iacono said that he had previously met some mainland Chinese physicians from a tumor institute in Zhengzhou, in the interior of China.

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