The fight to cure ALS got personal for Renée Zellweger, Jennifer Garner, Reese Witherspoon and other A-list celebrities when veteran publicist Nanci Ryder was diagnosed with the disease just over two years ago.
During her 30-year-plus career, Ryder represented numerous A-list clients — including Witherspoon, Zellweger, Michael J. Fox and Leonardo DiCaprio — as a founder of BWR Public Relations. She stepped down from the company in 2014.
Her 2014 diagnosis was precipitated by ongoing vocal issues, and as the neurological illness progressed, Ryder’s speech continued to deteriorate. By 2015, Ryder had lost her ability to speak and began using a gastrostomy feeding tube connected to her stomach to replace eating meals.
Within the past several weeks, the power publicist has gone from walking, to a walker, to a wheelchair as a result of balance issues related to ALS. Despite her physical limitations, Ryder has retained her trademark humor and sarcasm. “Her iPad is loaded with catchphrases, including some off-color ones,” Fred Fisher, President and CEO of the ALS Association Golden West Chapter tells PEOPLE. “She’s still having fun. She’s still poking people. She has a wicked sarcastic sense of humor and I really enjoy that.”
Hollywood power agent Bryan Lourd adds, “Nanci Ryder’s brain has a whole special super power that most of us just don’t have. She’s funny, and strong and the most persistent fighter for all good people and things. She’s loved by everyone who knows her and now by many who only know her story.”
Fisher explains that ALS is a disease of adaptation — meaning, you have no choice to adapt to whatever happens as you declines. “That’s why Nanci is so incredible. In the face of something must of us could never imagine living with she’s not just living with it, she’s thriving. That’s not unique to Nanci, but she exemplifies it.”
Fisher adds that Ryder’s dedication to turning her personal hardship into a solution for everyone “teaches all of us how to face our fears, confront our obstacles and keep our eyes firmly focused on making the world a better place. I feel privileged to know her.”
At Sunday’s walk, Cox told PEOPLE, “I’m just here because I love Nanci Ryder, and I would do anything for her, and I would do anything to help find a cure for this disease, and if we can get more awareness, more money, or just more support.”
“It’s wonderful that everyone comes out. It’s so nice that everybody whose career she has fostered, who she has given so much to, is here showing their love for her today. It’s an inspiring day,” Zellweger told PEOPLE at the event.
“You just show up,” Witherspoon echoed to PEOPLE. “We have an incredible group of organized people, so when Renée calls me I just show up, or when Courtney calls me we just rally. Nanci has a great team around her, a great group of people that she has done so much for over the years, and we just motivate each other and keep constantly in touch with each other. It’s been incredible to see how connected her friends are, and her friends are her family.”
Those friends have continued rallied to her side. Last year, more than 200 of Ryder’s friends, family and colleagues offered their support at the Walk to Defeat ALS in Los Angeles, propelling Team Nanci to first place by raising $141,893 for the Golden West Chapter of the ALS Association, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Cox, Witherspoon, Zellweger and Witherspoon’s CAA agent husband, Jim Toth were among her team captains.
Renée Zellweger, Courteney Cox, and Reese Witherspoon Support Team Nanci in ALS Walk
“She’s incredible,” Witherspoon told PEOPLE of Ryder at the 2015 event. “I mean, talk about a survivor. She’s just managed to have such grace.” The actress, along with the other team members, wore Vera Wang-designed “Team Nanci” T-shirts at the walk.
Both Witherspoon and Zellweger were also on hand for the 2014 ALS walk, where Ryder told PEOPLE, “I am humbled by the love and kindness I have experienced. Renée and Reese are two exceptional and loving people.”
While the disease is fatal, Ryder has not given up hope that public attention — including the Ice Bucket Challenge became popular the same year as her diagnosis — might lead to a cure. “Nobody is getting rid of me yet!” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “I joke around. I email my doctors on Mondays: ‘Did you find a cure?’ “