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The Osmond Family's Greatest Act: Winning the Daily Battle Against MS

Father-and-son diagnoses of multiple sclerosis haven't sapped Alan and David Osmond's fighting spirit

By Sherri Snelling | June 20, 2012
Contributor Photo

Sherri Snelling, executive director at Keck Medicine of USC and author of A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one.

alan and david osmond
Alan and David Osmond
Courtesy of David Osmond
Growing up Osmond comes with certain expectations: You sing, you dance and no matter what, the show must go on.

This has never been a problem for David Osmond, one of eight sons of Alan Osmond, the oldest of the famous brothers who shot to fame in the 1960s and '70s. David, 32, continued the family's pop legacy as the lead singer for Osmonds Second Generation, competed on American Idol in 2009 and released a solo album in 2010.

But just seven years ago David's career — and life — were suddenly in jeopardy: He could not sing, play guitar or even walk because of pain in his chest and paralysis stretching from his toes to his diaphragm. Multiple sclerosis was soon diagnosed, just as it had been in his father 20 years earlier when he was in his late 30s. (Siblings or children of people with MS have a 1 in 40 risk of also contracting the disease, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.)

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“When I originally received the diagnosis," David tells me, "I had already tested positive for West Nile virus, but some of the symptoms did not match up. So they tested me for MS and found I had the disease. My doctors believe it may have been dormant in my system, but was triggered by the virus.”

Affecting 2.5 million people worldwide, MS is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system. It interferes with the transmission of signals to the brain and spinal cord, triggering unpredictable and often debilitating symptoms. MS can cause numbness, tingling and searing pain in the extremities; periods of partial or full blindness; loss of sensory function, like taste or smell; and even paralysis. The cause is not clear and there is no cure, but the effectiveness of long-term drug treatments has improved.

MS affects every patient differently. Most, like David, experience flare-ups that can vary in length and severity, followed by periods of remission with few or no symptoms. "It's like a roller coaster," David has said. His father, however, is among the 15 percent of MS patients who have the progressive form of the disease, marked by a slow degeneration of the body’s functions.

At first, David was devastated by the diagnosis. “I was in complete denial," he admits. Sitting in a wheelchair in 2005, watching his brother's children playing with their dad, he wondered, “Will I ever have that?”

But now, David says, “I’m almost embarrassed to admit that is how I felt, because when I looked from my brother and my nieces and nephews to my dad, I realized, here is this man who has lived with MS for 20 years — and he has never complained. I realized that life can go on and you can find ways around this disease, just like my dad did.”

(MORE: Multiple Sclerosis: Increasing Quality of Life)

Both father and son have learned to live with MS and deal with its inherent obstacles and dire prognosis. Powerful steroid shots helped David get out of his wheelchair four years ago, enabling him to walk down the aisle with his bride, Valerie, at their wedding. (They began dating before his diagnosis.) “I proposed to her from my wheelchair and she said yes," he says, "so being able to walk down the aisle with her was something I just knew I had to do."

David still experiences some pain in his legs, but he has not been back in his wheelchair. He and Valerie now have two daughters, ages 1 and 3.

“I know it’s crazy to say, but it is actually a great time to have MS,” says David, who sits on the board of the Nancy Davis Foundation for MS. (See footage of David and other stars at the foundation's Race to Erase MS gala.) "The numerous choices we now have to attack this disease that is attacking our bodies are encouraging. I truly think MS is one of the chronic illnesses that may be cured in my lifetime.”

Counting on Nutrition and Family

Part of the Osmonds' approach to battling MS is an embrace of homeopathic remedies, like aromatherapy. “I was given a cortisone shot when I was first diagnosed in 1987,” Alan says, “and it just about killed me. It was right then that I decided there has to be a better way and I started investigating alternative medicines.”

The Osmonds do not take traditional MS drugs but they do support research into better treatments for the disease. For themselves, though, they believe all-natural treatments and diet choices represent their best chance to keep the disease at bay. Both men follow healthy, all-natural diets that include no gluten (which is found in wheat-based products), no casein (milk protein), no sugar and no refined flour; Alan combines fruits and vegetables in his blender for most meals. They occasionally eat lean meat but prefer to get their protein from omega-3-rich fish. Further, Alan takes a variety of all-natural dietary supplements, including Vitamin D, each day; David takes up to 50 daily supplements. In keeping with the tenets of their Mormon faith, neither man smokes or drinks coffee or caffeinated beverages.

Overall, each man says he has worked to educate himself about MS and has tried various approaches to discover what works best for his own body. Each encourages other MS patients to do the same.

Alan credits his wife, Suzanne, with pointing him toward the alternative treatments that have allowed him, so far, to defy the odds of his grim prognosis. His doctors expected he'd be in a wheelchair by now, but he generally walks without assistance, only occasionally employing a leg brace or golf cart. Alan also participates in hydro-exercise; the buoyancy of the water, he says, takes the pressure off his often-painful joints and helps him maintain balance while going through his exercises.

Both Osmonds believe the unconditional love of a spouse is essential for anyone facing a chronic illness. “It is not just one person who gets MS," Alan says. "It is the whole family. You have to have the drive and desire to keep living and keep fighting for yourself and those around you."

Their thriving marriages defy the odds: According to a National Health Institute Survey conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of marriages in which one spouse has a chronic illness end in divorce — a rate 50 percent higher than for other marriages.

“Sometimes dealing with something like multiple sclerosis can make your marriage better," David says. "I know both my wife and I have learned more patience with each other through this journey and I absolutely would not be where I am at today in conquering MS without her.”

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As we wound up our interview, David's girls were calling to him from the next room, eager to get back to playing Legos and watching Disney movies with their dad, experiences that, a few years ago, he was not sure he would ever be able to share. Later, I saw this tweet from David: “Going to make t-shirts for my girls that say ‘Having MS gets on my dad’s nerves.’”
 
Sherri Snelling's book on celebrity caregivers, A Cast of Caregivers, will be published by Balboa Press in January 2013.