WASHINGTON, March 8 (UPI) -- Every hour, one more person is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable neurological disease that can lead to blurred vision, slurred speech or paralysis. The disease affects an estimated 400,000 Americans every year. One of them is Clay Walker, the multi-platinum country-music artist who was diagnosed with MS in 1996 while on tour in Canada.
United Press International spoke with Walker, 37, about his life after diagnosis.
Q. What was your biggest fear when you found out you had MS?
A. My biggest fear was "(Am) I in a life or death situation?" I had no idea what the disease was. When it first started, I thought it was muscular dystrophy.
Q. How did you console those fears? Where you able to find some answers?
A. The next day I was able to see a neurologist. He reassured me that it was very likely that this was relapsing-remitting, which I believe is the most common form of MS, and that I was on the upside of the spectrum.
When you ask about fears ... I had a 3-month-old child. Was I going to live to see her walk down the aisle, and would I be able to run around and play with her as the years went by?
Q. What was the first thing that clued you something might be wrong?
A. Playing basketball, I felt like my right leg was asleep. I also had double vision. I sat down and was so dizzy it was if I had been heavily intoxicated. The right leg feeling like it was asleep lasted for about eight weeks.
Q. Did MS limit your guitar playing?
A. When I was originally diagnosed, I could not hold a guitar pick in my fingers.
Q. Are there life situations before your diagnosis that prepared you to deal with it?
A. Oh sure. I was brought up in a faith-based home, and having faith and believing that I was going to be OK was a major step in seeking treatment and belief. There are a lot of people out there who ... need to be encouraged that MS is not a death sentence. It does not mean that you are any less of a person. You can use it as a catalyst for success, you know, as an inspiration to the people around you.
Q. Do you have any moments in life when you forget you have MS?
A. My oldest daughter loves to race on the beach, and she wanted to race me in a foot race ... At this particular time I was really going to try to beat her. I was running down the beach, my right toe stuck in the ground and I "splatted" myself right on the hard sand and it knocked all the wind out of me. A wave washed over, it looked like I was going to drown -- I couldn't get up. That was a time I forgot I had MS and then was reminded of it.
For the most part I play basketball all the time, I ride horses, I golf, I swim, I'm very active. You know, in all these things, MS is just a component of my life. It's not the fiber.
Q. Do you think MS inspired you musically, or bogged you down? Are there any specific songs that you wrote because of it?
A. I think it's impossible not to be affected by the disease mentally, spiritually -- every way. I have not specifically written a song about MS, but that is definitely an intention. I'm ready at this point to be able to put something in words that makes sense. There's a song that I wrote when I first came out and it's called "Live Until I Die." One of the lines in that song is "I don't worry about things that I can't change." I have to look at a mess and say, "I can't let this bother me, I can't let it conquer me."
There's just too much life to live, and my life has been enriched because of MS. You have to get real with yourself when you're diagnosed and once you do that, once you know yourself, it's very easy to read other people because you're honest in your own self. In the words of Shakespeare, "Unto thine own self, be true."
For more information about MS or what Walker is doing to raise awareness for the disease, visit www.bandagainstms.org.