I think that it has been well established that I am a complete geek. So none of you should be shocked to learn that I have a Presidents’ Day tradition. I marathon watch the West Wing and let myself believe—if only for a few brief hours—that I could live in the America of Josiah Bartlet as painted by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin.
You will now be granted a brief pause to make a single comment about my nerdishness.
Anyway… This year I watched the West Wing through a new lens. The MS lens.
Just to recap, it is revealed after President Bartlet is shot in the Season One cliffhanger that he has MS. This diagnosis is important for the anesthesiologist to be aware of as he preps the President for surgery. And that is the last we hear about it for a while until—and stay with me here—one of his senior policy advisers think something is fishy with the Vice President (who knows the President has MS and is not planning to run for a second term).
Still with me?
This year as I was watching the MS storyline unfold, I found it interesting to see the character’s reactions to hearing about President Bartlet’s MS. At the time the show was on the air, The West Wing was both lauded and criticized for its portrayal of MS. But I hardly gave it a thought back then. It’s all different now.
Having once been pregnant, I am always skeptical when I hear a story about a woman who gave birth to a healthy baby while never having known she was pregnant. That gives me pause. I can’t imagine feeling someone playing football with my bladder going unnoticed. I can’t wrap my brain around someone feeling a fetus swimming around her stomach and NOT thinking that—at the very least—she probably should address that sensation with a doctor. I would certainly want some medicinal reassurance that my appendix hadn’t become sentient.
I feel the same way with the West Wing MS President. I just don’t buy it.
Aside—Yes, I am well aware that we are talking about a work of fiction. Written by one of the most gifted writers alive right now, but fiction nonetheless. But like all art, Sorkin’s writing can only be interpreted by me through my own experiences.
Back to the Bartlet administration.
The MS Society reports that four out of ten people with MS have either failed to disclose or outright lied about their diagnosis to friends, family, colleagues, and their employer. The same study reported that 36 percent of MS patients feel it has a negative impact on their inter-personal relationships.
I’ve certainly noticed that it has impacted my relationships. So I will give President Bartlet a pass on this one. I get it. And no one—not even the President—is under any obligation to disclose their MS (or any other health conditions) to their employer.
Bartlet’s choice to not disclose his MS is not where I stumble. I have a hard time with his ability to manage both his MS and the business of the country.
Let me expound.
MS advocates loved that Sorkin gave MS to the President. They saw it as an endorsement that a person with MS can do anything. Yay. Go MS peeps.
Except, I don’t buy it. The symptom that people with MS feel is most debilitating is fatigue. Extreme fatigue. Our country has seen President’s with disabilities before. FDR was in a wheelchair. JFK was in chronic back pain and needing medication and a brace. I don’t think Bartlet’s need for an occasional walking aid is any problem at all.
But the soul-crushing fatigue? That is where I think MS would defeat a President. POTUS has to spend 10 to 12 hours at work each day. No weekends off. No vacations away from responsibly. No time for a nap. I can barely make it through my 8 hour day without having to put my head on my desk because I don’t have the energy to keep holding it up.
Oh, and let’s not forget one of the things that exacerbates MS symptoms. Stress. But the President never has to deal with that, right? Yeah, I’m not buying it.
I think we should reboot some other TV series and give the main character MS. Then depict these characters with an accurate portrayal of life with MS. In Breaking Bad, let’s take away Walt’s cancer and give him MS. Trouble finds him when he falls asleep in his motor home, ruining his latest batch of Meth. Which is bad, because he needs the cash to pay for his Avonex.
Or maybe Ross would dump Rachel forever after her MS diagnosis because he doesn’t want to deal with a lifetime of disabilities. He has overlooked the benefits of being able to jump the lines at an amusement park or park close to the door at a sporting event. So the rest of the Friends series can follow Rachel as she navigates Manhattan with a cane, endlessly having first dates.
Or even a colorful, fluffy character on Sesame Street that just randomly falls down and can’t keep her hand from shooting forward and punching people. Actually, someone needs to make me that puppet.