Multi-platinum country music artist Clay Walker, 46, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 20 years ago, had several messages to MS patients at the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers (CMSC) 2016 Annual Meeting June 1-4 in National Harbor, Maryland. Chief among them, especially to newly diagnosed patients: “You’re gonna be OK,” spoken in his trademark Texas twang.
And that’s an important message from someone who’s had the currently incurable disease for two decades, because as Walker said, MS patients “don’t trust [words of encouragement from] anybody who doesn’t have it, am I right?”
Walker and his neurologist, Dr. Jerry Wolinsky from the University of Texas Health McGovern Medical School in Houston, spoke to media about “The Importance of a Patient/Physician Dialogue.”
Walker takes the Teva Pharmaceuticals‘ drug Copaxone (glatiramer acetate) by injection, three times a week, and said it works great for him. He feels good, he’s able to go on the road and tour with his band, he remains active, and he exercises three times a week. But it wasn’t always that way. When he was first diagnosed two decades ago, he was prescribed a different drug that didn’t work for him.
“I ended up relapsing two, three times. My opinion of medication for multiple sclerosis at that time was very low. Dr. Wolinsky was not my first doctor. However, after I found him and realized his sincerity in wanting to see me and all his patients succeed with MS, he told me, very compassionately, that he felt that we could find a medication that would work for me. So he started me on a medication that had not been out that long, Copaxone.”
Walker said he is very close to his doctor, as it should be. “The relationship I have with Dr. Wolinsky is second only to the relationship I have with my family,” he noted, and encouraged other MS patients to foster closer relationships with their own physicians.
Walker is concerned about the way medicine seems to be moving in a different direction from the direct physician-patient relationship.
“I think the way the medical industry is moving away from the way Jerry and I share a relationship and more about looking at the computer, and looking at the data, than putting their eyes on you — I hope that doesn’t disappear. What I have with Jerry is irreplaceable,” Walker said.
And although he confessed that he gets “nervous” when he takes a walk with Wolinsky and notices the doctor eyeing his gait to make sure all seems well, Walker said he wouldn’t change a thing. He described Wolinsky as “very stoic,” and said “it took probably 11 years before Jerry had his first glass of wine with me, and that’s when I knew we’d be friends.”
“Over a glass of wine I learned where his heart is, and that’s why I love the man. He’s one of the brightest — maybe the brightest — MS specialist out there. I know that if there’s a cure that’s going to be found, he’ll be the guy to find it,” Walker said.
For Walker, the key for MS patients is to stay as active as possible. It’s the one way to feel good about yourself, he emphasized over and over.
“I’m touring a lot, I’m active. I’ve never missed a show in my life. I’ve never called in sick, not once,” he said. “I stay active, I do believe that’s important. I do it largely to stay moving, to stay walking. The doctor has his part to do, but it’s not his job to tell me to get out there and keep moving or to get out there and lose weight. That is mainly the patient’s job.”
“In MS patients, they get this idea from their own community that all they can do is go down,” he said. “I’m almost in the best shape of my life right now.”
Walker is very involved with the MS community and is eager to offer inspiration to those living with the disease. “Most people who I see who are depressed with MS are people who can’t or don’t move around a lot. The immobility has depressed them. I personally believe that if they can start digging themselves out of that hole with encouragement, because it takes encouragement – my wife helps me – it’s those gentle nudges that help,” he said.
“My encouragement to people who have MS is that the simple things are not always easy. If you are in a wheelchair, if you have one limb that works, use it,” Walker said. “I just have to believe that if they see some improvement, it will lift them. And you keep building on those small successes until you reach your maximum potential.”
Diet is also important to stay healthy, the country singer said. “It’s so easy to reach for the wrong thing. I’m terrible about it. It’s so dag-gum hard to be that disciplined. But I believe that people who have MS have to be,” he concluded.