Susan Reed
April 29, 1991 12:00 PM

FLORIDA LANDLORD JOHN NUCCITELLI didn’t expect to be ambushed, certainly not by a television journalist riding a motorized scooter down a hallway of the Seminole County Courthouse. Yet here was Ellen MacFarlane, award-winning consumer reporter for Orlando’s WCPX-TV, coming at him. As the camera rolled, MacFarlane thrust a mike forward and asked, “John, why do you rent places you don’t own? What have you been doing with all the rent money you’ve taken? Why won’t you talk to me, John? Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

Nuccitelli, flustered, covered his face with a newspaper and ducked into a nearby courtroom for refuge. MacFarlane, unflustered, parked her scooter outside and waited for him to emerge from his arraignment on an unrelated felony theft and fraud charge. A passerby who had apparently seen MacFarlane before on TV chuckled. “Sure is persistent,” he said. “She stays right on their butts.”

Though only 5′ tall, MacFarlane, 46, is a formidable presence. She appears on WCPX five times a week, exposing consumer fraud, con artists and those she calls plain old creeps. Her comments can be scathing—she once labeled someone a pig on the air—but she is also a practiced, responsible pro who has never been successfully sued. “That camera has so much clout and can cause so much damage if you point it in the wrong direction,” she says. “You just have to be fair. I never go on the air with anything I can’t prove.”

MacFarlane’s relentless pursuits are all the more extraordinary because she suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease of the nervous system that has robbed her of the ability to walk without braces and has partially weakened her right arm. “Ellen is fighting the disease like she fights the bad guys,” says station general manager Mike Schweitzer. “MS isn’t going to make her give up. It’s the biggest fight of her life.”

For all her spirit, MacFarlane admits that she cried on the day in 1986 when she was diagnosed. Eleven years earlier, she had suffered a series of epilepsylike seizures that doctors treated with medication. In 1984 MacFarlane, now one of Orlando’s most recognized TV personalities, began stumbling while she jogged. Finally a neuroradiologist diagnosed MS, an unpredictable, progressive loss of the insulation of the nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Dr. Labe Scheinberg, a specialist at Albert Einstein Medical Center in New York City, advised her optimistically, “Keep working. Don’t make a career out of MS.”

She did keep working, and WCPX did all it could to help. Because heat temporarily worsens MS’s effects, MacFarlane was given time off in the summer. Both in support of her and to educate the public, the station has aired two specials about MacFarlane. Still, there have been some issues that required negotiation. Last summer, after undergoing experimental chemotherapy to slow the progression of the disease, MacFarlane temporarily lost her hair. Station brass suggested she wear a wig on-camera until it grew back. MacFarlane resisted. They compromised on a hat.

Even more important to MacFarlane is her smooth working relationship with her cameraman and best friend, R.C. Lee, 37, a 210-lb. former football player. “He shoots me so you don’t see my cane or my scooter,” says MacFarlane. Lee calls her sweetheart and baby and is the only person she will allow to help her into her specially equipped van. Their partnership was forged in 1985 when MacFarlane went to bat for Lee after he was fired by another station for alcohol abuse. “I had some spirits in me that were trying to kill me,” he says. “Ellen helped me out.”

MacFarlane says her deep sense of caring—and of accountability—came from her parents. Her father, Herbert Burstein, who died in 1983, was a distinguished labor-relations lawyer who rarely took a day off. Her mother, Beatrice Burstein, a New York State court judge, often posted bail herself for minor offenders.

Ellen grew up in a fiercely competitive household of six kids who rambled around a 20-room home in Lawrence, N.Y. “My father insisted we have help at home, not because he was snobby, but because he thought we should read a book instead of washing dishes,” she says. “He always told us we could have an unlimited number of books and records. It was an enormous environment for achieving.” MacFarlane graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1966 with a degree in modern languages. After earning a master’s in educational psychology from Columbia University, she worked as a secretary on The Tonight Show. Later she became a producer-reporter at Newsweek Broadcasting. She got hooked on advocacy journalism at her next job, at Eyewitness News in New York City. “We were doing a segment on slumlords, and I was doing an on-camera with a 93-year-old lady who’d been without water, electricity and heat for six weeks,” says MacFarlane. “She said, ‘It’s lousy.’ I agreed. Right on-camera I repeated, ‘It is lousy.’ Suddenly I realized I could point a camera and make a difference.”

On a job-hunting sortie in 1980 she wound up at a trade convention where she met Brian MacFarlane, a TV news producer. They married just 10 days later. “It was the most impulsive decision I ever made,” says Ellen. “I met a man who was very bright and sexy.” When Ellen landed a job as consumer reporter for WFTV in Orlando, Brian gave up his job in New York City and accompanied her to Florida, where he started his own production company. Three years later she moved to WCPX.

In 1988 MacFarlane won a local award for a series about lax state supervision of contractors. Even after MacFarlane became ill, she habitually put in 14-hour workdays and brought work home on weekends. Then on a July day in 1989, MacFarlane went to her back porch to sunbathe. She didn’t know that heat can shut down the nervous system of someone with MS. Suddenly she was unable to move. For more than four hours she lay facedown. “I just wanted to die,” she says. Finally Brian returned and rushed her inside to cool her body with ice.

MacFarlane acknowledges that her compulsive work habits had a devastating effect on her health—and on her marriage. She and Brian, 45, divorced a year ago. Today her ex-husband says that Ellen, who used to tear wrapping off gifts “like a pit bull,” is “more sensitive and compassionate about humans than she was before.”

MacFarlane is still not a person who gives up easily. Last September she applied for a private investigator’s license to expedite her work as a reporter, although she has also learned that her illness had been re-categorized as the worst variety of chronic-progressive MS. “The form of the disease I have could eventually leave me immobilized,” she says. “I know the time will come to move on. Still,” she adds, “my nature is to overcome. I used to think if I could never run again, I couldn’t go on. Now I know I won’t run again, and I am going on.

R.C. Lee, too, sees the change. “Before the MS she didn’t care anything about your feelings,” he says. “She’d just light into you. Ellen wants things to be perfect.” MacFarlane admits she has mellowed. “Sometimes a disease can be a gift,” she says. “MS has changed my life in such an important way. Now I take time to smell the roses.”

SUSAN REED

MEG GRANT in Orlando

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