ABILITY House Magazine Article IllustrationInterview with Montel Williams - by Dr. Gillian Friedman and Chet Cooper

A threatening war cry screams out, breaking the silence of the auditorium, “Mountain get out of my way!” Rap music fills the room, moving the young audience with its rhythm. The beat creates a bond between the group and the person on center stage. Minutes later gunshots fill the air. The music stops, as if shot itself. The loudest sound is the ringing in your ears; then come the cries of the scared starting to run. In a loud but calming voice the man on center stage, Montel Williams, reassures that it’s okay, they were only blanks. This short staged vignette was one way Montel would capture the attention of a young audience to speak about violence and drug abuse. In the late 1980s Montel traveled to thousands of schools across the country as a representative of the Navy. His War Against Drugs traveling show launched his talk-show career. Today he travels to Washington, D.C. with a new battle cry—to argue for the reclassification of marijuana, one of the drugs he once made his living discouraging among America’s youth.

Montel Williams has multiple sclerosis (MS). Those five words are changing the lives of millions of people. People with MS can have vastly different symptoms, but universal to all is that MS affects quality of life for them and the people closest to them. With his tenacious personality, Montel is waging war against multiple sclerosis. His fight includes funding research to end MS, increasing public awareness and lobbying for legal access to marijuana for medical use.

Montel Williams has an impressive arsenal to wage this war. He began his professional career learning to fight in the US Marine Corps. He then entered the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, and graduated with a degree in Engineering and a minor in International Security Affairs. As a naval officer Montel traveled the world on aircraft carriers and in submarines. He studied Chinese and Russian and specialized in cryptology. While deployed in the Indian Ocean he helped provide the intelligence that allowed the U.S. to shoot down two Libyan fighters who had made aggressive moves toward our aircraft. He has been decorated with the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, two Navy Expeditionary Medals, two Humanitarian Service Medals, a Navy Achievement Medal, two Navy Commendation Medals and two Meritorious Service Awards. The most powerful weapon for Emmy Award-winner Montel Williams is, however, his talk show, now in its 13th season. His compassion for his guests and his can-do attitude have produced a large and loyal following. With 8 to 10 guests per show, Montel has now hosted over twenty-one thousand people. The Montel Williams Show is the only show of its kind to employ a full-time staff psychologist. The show’s After-Care Program has arranged for guests to attend psychological counseling sessions, weight-loss and eating disorder programs, and drug rehabilitation centers after they appear on the show. Because of the respect that Montel has garnered from his audience, when he talks about serious issues, millions of people listen.

ABILITY Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Chet Cooper and Managing Health Editor Dr. Gillian Friedman met with Montel in his hotel suite during his recent trip to Los Angeles. Despite his casual attire and earrings, when Montel sat down at the table, he looked the part of someone about to take charge of a corporate board meeting. With his well-conditioned physique and captivating presence, he doesn’t look like a person battling a sometimes debilitating illness. It is hard to imagine his daily regimen, which includes taking forty pills a day of various vitamins, herbs, and other supplements. The medication Montel takes to slow the progression of his MS must be administered daily by injection, and can cause fever, rash, bruising, anxiety and shortness of breath, all of which he says he has experienced at some point in his treatment.
Chet Cooper talking with Montell Williams Chet Cooper talking with Montel
Surprisingly, Montel has found snowboarding to be his best therapy. When asked how it helps, he stood up with the palms of his hands still firmly planted on the table as if prepared to give a speech. “When I stand up I need first to hold on to something and think about the positioning of my legs. If I were to just start walking I would fall. I have to get my brain to find my legs and then I will usually take a test step, but I say something at the time to anyone who might be watching to distract from what I’m really doing. Then I’ll find places to grab as I walk and talk, sometimes even walking backwards because I have more control that way. People have no idea that I’m doing this. But when I’m snowboarding and my feet are strapped in, my brain seems to have a direct connection to my legs. After snowboarding it’s night and day for my balance and walking. There’s a real physical change before I get up to the mountain and when I come down. The benefits last for days.”

In retrospect, Montel and his doctors have figured out that he has probably been experiencing symptoms of MS off and on for more than 20 years, since his days at the Naval Academy. As Montel was about to graduate he developed a sudden blurring of vision in his left eye, along with twitching, weeping, and a scotoma (blind spot). A medical student today might immediately recognize Montel’s visual symptoms (called optic neuritis) as a potential initial presentation of MS (in fact, it is a frequent scenario presented on medical board exams). At the time, Montel’s problem was a mystery. One doctor mentioned something to him about MS, but then dismissed the possibility because he was in such good physical shape. After a few months his vision spontaneously started to improve. Because symptoms come and go with MS, often the diagnosis is missed for many years. Each flare is attributed to other factors, and when symptoms go away people stop worrying about them. For years Montel repeatedly lost vision in his left eye, but it would return after a couple of days. If he had pain, he attributed it to an overly strenuous workout. He once burned himself without noticing it, but didn’t consider that a nerve problem could be involved. It was not until he had a severe exacerbation in February of 1999 that the diagnosis became clear. While preparing to film an episode of Touched by an Angel in Salt Lake City, Utah, he began to experience a burning pain in his legs, so extreme that he could barely walk. Afraid that disclosing his pain would ruin his opportunities for other guest appearances, he told no one except his wife and a physician friend in Salt Lake City. Through sheer will he made it through the shoot, and his friend referred him to a local neurologist. Montel’s feet and legs were so numb that when the neurologist drew blood poking him with needles, he still felt nothing. This doctor told him there was no question that he had MS.

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