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Taking Parkinson's Disease Personally

Books * In 'Saving Milly,' a political pundit writes about the ailment that 'kidnapped' his wife, and appeals for more funding for research.

July 09, 2001|KEVIN CANFIELD | HARTFORD COURANT

If, after 20 years of marriage, Morton and Milly Kondracke didn't have it all, they definitely had most of it: successful careers, two talented daughters, a hard-won victory over (his) alcoholism.

But in 1987, a single letter of the alphabet informed them that their lives were about to change forever.

Writing a check to accompany one of daughter Andrea's college applications, Milly "remarked that she could not form the letter 'K' correctly," Morton Kondracke says in his new book, "Saving Milly: Love, Politics and Parkinson's Disease" (Public Affairs, 2001). "She got a piece of paper and wrote her signature four or five more times, then more times, and said her handwriting just wasn't right."

That problem persisted as another--a tremor in her right hand --announced itself. They were just the first manifestations of Parkinson's, a disease that "has kidnapped" Milly Kondracke.

For Morton Kondracke, 62, a former panelist on "The McLaughlin Group" and the current co-host of Fox News Channel's "The Beltway Boys," "Saving Milly" serves a dual purpose. A celebration of his relationship with his wife, the book is also an appeal for increased funding for Parkinson's research.

And to get more money from Congress, Kondracke knows he must get more people to pay attention to a disease that affects a million Americans.

Which is why he asked actor Michael J. Fox, who announced in 1998 that he has Parkinson's, to write the book's foreword.

"If you don't have somebody who is the poster child for your disease or an advocate for the disease, it can get lost," Kondracke said.

As he beats the drum for more federal money, Kondracke realizes that any help from Capitol Hill will come too late for his wife.

A once-dynamic psychotherapist, Milly, 61, now struggles to speak clearly. She finds it difficult to eat solid food, has trouble drinking with a straw and can't walk.

Brain scientists say that enough is known that this disease could be cured in five to 10 years--if adequate resources are devoted to the task. Despite the general increase in medical research funding, those resources are not yet going to Parkinson's.

Kondracke's book may be appearing at a propitious time. In part because of disagreement between President Bush and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, the issue of stem cell research--which, proponents say, could be a major breakthrough for researchers of Parkinson's and other diseases--has been on the front pages of newspapers across the U.S. this month.

It wasn't all that long ago, however, that Parkinson's was marginalized to the point that Kondracke felt it necessary to begin writing about it occasionally in his column for Roll Call, the congressional newspaper.

According to Parkinson's researchers, the National Institutes of Health spent about $53 per patient researching the disease in 1999. That's compared with $1,800 per patient for AIDS research and $400 per patient for cancer.

The figures have turned Kondracke into an activist.

"I think I'm a transformed person because of this whole experience," he said.

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