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With Faith to Carry on

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Alan Osmond was just 7 years old when his father, George, taught him and his younger brothers Wayne, Merrill and Jay to sing on a car trip from Utah to a family vacation in Yellowstone National Park. “I’d sit right behind Father and put my head next to the seat so I could listen to his voice,” he says. “It didn’t take long for me to pick up his harmony. “After auditioning in Hollywood four years later, the quartet—which later included younger brother Donny—became regulars on The Andy Williams Show, where their all-American pop charmed audiences throughout the ’60s. In the ’70s, when Donny and sister Marie took the spotlight, Alan headed the family company and produced their weekly ABC show as well as the family’s Christmas specials.

The very attributes—poise, grace and wisdom—that made Osmond, 45, a reliable big brother served him well in 1987, when he was told he might have multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that can impair speech and cause blindness and paralysis. MS cripples by destroying the protective layer around the nerves. As Osmond sees it, “MS is like an electrical wire that loses its insulation—voltage seeps out instead of helping my muscles and organs function properly.”

Born and raised in Ogden, Utah, Osmond still performs with members of his family at the Osmonds’ theater in Branson, Mo. He spends the rest of his time with his wife, Suzanne, 42, and their eight sons, aged 5 to 19, back home in Utah in their spacious, riverside cabin. His multimedia company, Alan Osmond Productions, puts on concerts and fireworks displays—and helped stage Inaugural balls for Presidents Reagan and Bush. Buoyed by his family and his Mormon faith, Osmond, who suffers some paralysis on his right side and relies occasionally on a leg brace for long strolls, keeps a positive attitude. “I have MS,” he says, “but MS doesn’t have me. “He spoke about his illness with correspondent Cathy Free.

TELLING THE WORLD ABOUT MY DISEASE wasn’t something I had planned. After performing at the Jerry Lewis telethon for muscular dystrophy last September, I had 30 seconds to say something to the audience. I said, “I encourage you to get behind Jerry because research done for muscular dystrophy will also help people like me who have MS.” I broke down as I said it, because I felt so relieved to get it out. Afterward, lots of people came up and hugged me and said, “I had no idea.”

MS is a very lonely disease—I’m one of an estimated 350,000 Americans who have it, and each of us feels alone because there is not a known cure. My symptoms first appeared in January 1987. One night, as I was playing the trumpet onstage with my brothers, I couldn’t get the speed in the fingers of my right hand. “Come on,” I told myself, “you’re really getting slack.” I thought I might be tired and that it would go away. But it didn’t.

Because there was no pain or numbness, only a slight weakness in my hand and trouble moving my fingers, I started to think that maybe I’d had a slight stroke. I went to my doctor, who told me the symptoms could be those of Lyme disease, a stroke, a nervous condition in my back or neck—or MS. I sought other opinions and had a battery of tests, a spinal tap and an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging test]. These doctors also told me I had symptoms that could be MS. In a way, it was a relief Suzanne and I had feared that I might have a brain tumor or cancer.

But I did want to know if I was going to die. My doctors reassured me that MS isn’t so much a killer as a crippler—two-thirds of the people who have it remain ambulatory, and the rest end up in wheelchairs. A few years later, doctors told me that I most likely had “progressive MS,” or the kind that comes on very slowly as opposed to the other kind that moves quickly. Even so, I felt helpless. I wondered whether I could still be a good husband and father. I wanted to continue skiing and wrestling with my boys. But I went home and told them the truth—that I would get worse and could end up in a wheelchair but that I’m not going to die. That relieved all of us right there. I said, “I’m going to need your help, but I want you to be positive and make sure things don’t change around here.”

Over the next few years, I started noticing other symptoms in addition to the persistent weakness in my hand. In the summer of 1992, we were rehearsing in Utah for the opening of our Family Theater. It was becoming difficult to run and pick up my leg. I had a hitch in my walk and a droop in my shoulder. At another rehearsal I just couldn’t keep up with the dancing. I said, “Look, guys, I can’t do it. Go on without me.” And they said, “Alan, if you don’t go on, none of us are. We’ll change the routine.” They did. I still get very choked up when I remember that.

By the fall of 1992, muscle atrophy was noticeable in my arm and leg, and I began stumbling. I had a foot brace fitted to my leg, which helped me walk better, but the problem itself didn’t improve. The following year, my back was pulled out of line because the muscles on my right side weren’t working as hard as the ones on my left. I go to a chiropractor, which helps keep the spine balanced. Around this time, I also couldn’t grab the big baritone sax and swing it around onstage like I used to. Finally, in 1994, I started losing my grip in the right hand. I stopped autograph sessions and began writing left-handed. It bothered me that I couldn’t play chords on the keyboard. After all, I wrote many of the hits for the brothers sitting at the piano.

I was embarrassed by my limitations and was afraid the fans would be disappointed and wouldn’t come and see us anymore. But it’s only occasionally somebody will ask if I’ve been in an accident or if I hurt my leg. I just tell them I have MS and that’s all. But other things have become more difficult. I can’t hold a fork very well with my right hand, and it’s hard to shake hands. My right foot kind of drags behind me sometimes, and because my right ankle isn’t very strong, I often lose my balance.

While I can’t get on the floor and romp with the kids like I used to, I’ve found alternatives—like the moments when one of my little boys grabs my hand and rubs it therapeutically, or when they help me tie my shoes. I can no longer play guitar well, and now I write most of the songs in my mind and call out the chords to my son Nathan, 18. He acts as my fingers on the keyboard. I’ll say, “Give me a G minor.” It works out just fine.

I still see different doctors and experiment with all kinds of treatments. Though some doctors tell me exercise won’t help me get over MS, I do water exercises at my pool in Branson and jump on a small trampoline. One of my two physical therapists has me working with clay to help keep my fingers strong, and I also do isometric exercises with rubber bands—something I can play as a kind of game with my kids. I mostly eat vegetarian food because it makes me feel better.

I never really asked, “Why me?” As a Mormon, I believe life is everlasting and I don’t fear the future, not even death. Despite everything, I still feel I’ve really been blessed. Because doctors tell me MS is not directly hereditary, Suzanne and I are not worried about passing it on to our kids. And there is my family’s support. My kids aren’t down about my disease—they tease me and laugh and say, “Come on, Father, don’t be a drag.” Marie calls when she hears of some new remedy, and Donny who networks on computers quite a bit, does the same. And Suzanne is an incredibly strong woman. There haven’t been many tears on her part. A lot of marriages end up on the rocks with MS because one partner needs constant attention. Not Suzanne and me. This has brought us closer.

I also learned a lot from my two older brothers, Verl, 49, and Tom, 47, both of whom have been hearing impaired since birth. They accepted their problems as a challenge and moved on. It was no big deal. Like them, I’m not going to let my disability keep me down. In fact, I’m now performing in Branson with my brothers. I’m fortunate, since I don’t have serious side effects like loss of-vision or mobility. I don’t need a cane, either. But if that day comes, I’ve got lots of boys to lean on.