As Parkinson's, takes toll, Udall tries to stay upbeat Former congressman remains in hospital

January 07, 1992|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Arizona Republic

WASHINGTON -- Morris K. Udall has been trying to stand up lately. Relatives say the former basketball player will shift his long legs toward the edge of his hospital bed and wait for nurses to help so he won't fall.

Parkinson's disease has affected Mr. Udall's balance enough that he cannot realistically expect to support himself.

Still, he tries.

A year after a fall bruised his brain, the good news is that Mr. Udall is still trying. The 69-year-old Arizona congressional legend receives scores of visitors, listens to classical music and, on occasion, leaves the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to spend a day in his suburban Virginia home.

The bad news is that Parkinson's continues its relentless degeneration of Mr. Udall's brain. Friends say that he is thinner than the public would remember him and that his ability to speak sentences comes and goes.

A fall down a flight of stairs on Jan. 6, 1991, left Mr. Udall hospitalized, and his 30-year congressional career ended in May. But his wife, Norma, said Friday that Mr. Udall would be in the same condition by now even if the accident had not occurred.

"The doctors say he has recovered from the physical effects of the fall," she said. "The fall exacerbated the Parkinson's, and it came upon him sooner. But by this time, he would have been at this point in the disease anyway."

Mr. Udall was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1979. In the disease, the loss of a cellular chemical called dopamine triggers degeneration in the brain. The ailment is characterized by shaking and a loss of coordination and balance.

Mrs. Udall said her husband remained upbeat, occasionally flashing the "puckish" expression befitting a witty man who once wrote a book called "Too Funny To Be President."

Mr. Udall, who led the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee for 14 years, was a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976. He is known for telling jokes that often made him the butt of amusement.

His wife now tries her best to understand Mr. Udall's words and expressions. She is frustrated when she fails.

"Sometimes, he'll tell me something funny, and I'll pick up part of it," she said. "I'll get the drift, but I don't quite pick up the details. I see that little puckish look, and I try so hard to understand."

Mrs. Udall drives 30 minutes each afternoon to the VA center, which sits among a cluster of hospitals in northwest Washington. She strokes his hand and brings desserts.

The toughest part, she said, is the drive home.

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