Reno remains productive, active despite challenges created by Parkinson's

Ex-official delivers speech at medical conference

October 09, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

There are times when Janet Reno has to be told to speak up, when her left hand shakes uncontrollably and when she tires too soon.

But the former U.S. attorney general says Parkinson's disease has not kept her from kayaking, hiking and running for governor of Florida.

And that was the point of her appearance in Baltimore yesterday -- to emphasize that a disease known for its debilitating effects isn't that way for everyone.

Reno recounted her experiences with Parkinson's for about 300 fellow Parkinson's patients, doctors and nurses yesterday at a forum sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

She told the crowd that she had just returned from a kayaking trip in Jamaica, that she's teaching two-week seminars at her alma mater, Cornell University, and that she enjoys spending time with a 10-month-old great-niece. She was interrupted by applause three times and given a standing ovation.

"I learned that with Parkinson's, you can even be on Saturday Night Live," said Reno, who appeared on the show in 2001.

While she talked, Reno's left hand occasionally showed a tremor. She referred to it and joked about it.

"Eight years after my diagnosis, this hand still shakes a lot, but sometimes it sits there and does nothing, and I still don't know how it knows whatever it seems to know," she told the crowd.

Reno, 65, said she realized something was wrong during her early morning walks on the National Mall in Washington in the summer of 1995. She noticed her left hand shaking one day and Parkinson's was diagnosed a few months later.

"I was told, `You've got Parkinson's. You'll be fine for 20 years, don't worry,' " she said.

She knew that stress isn't good for Parkinson's patients, and knew that as attorney general, she would continue to have her share of it. She was the ultimate boss of 120,000 Justice Department employees and was at the center of several controversies, including the FBI raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which led to the deaths of 80 people, and the return of young Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba.

She also was authorized to appoint special counsel, which proved particularly vexing. President Clinton criticized her for appointing a special counsel to investigate him in the Lewinsky scandal, while conservatives criticized her when she refused to appoint one to investigate Clinton's campaign finances.

"When it came to independent counsels, I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't," Reno told the audience.

But she gave no thought to resigning as attorney general, she said, and instead asked her family to watch out for her: "I told my family that if they see me slipping, to let me know."

She took up kayaking after seeing kayakers during hikes along the Potomac River around Great Falls, Va.

These days, she said, arthritis is more of a bother than the Parkinson's. "There's just general aches and pains," she said.

Her appearance at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel was arranged by Dr. William J. Weiner, a neurologist who treated Reno in Miami before he came to Maryland in 2000.

Weiner, now chairman of the neurology department, said the prognosis in Parkinson's disease varies widely from one patient to the next.

"When someone is diagnosed, I tell them that in four or five years, you could have trouble carrying on fundamental activities. But it's also possible that in 12 to 15 years, you will be taking medicine but leading a pretty active life," said Weiner, who is co-director of the Maryland Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center.

Parkinson's is a slow degeneration in the substantia nigra, a part of the brain that directs motor control. Weiner said there is no CT scan and no blood test to determine whether someone has Parkinson's. It must be diagnosed by a doctor.

The disease affects about 1 million people and doesn't usually run in families. Researchers are unsure if its causes are genetic or environmental. There are no medications for the disease itself, but drugs can suppress its symptoms: the tremors, loss of balance, slurred speech and the loss of motor control that make it difficult for patients to do ordinary tasks.

Reno said she consulted with Weiner and Dr. William Koller, a Florida physician, before deciding to run for governor in 2002.

She lost the Democratic primary to a better-funded Tampa lawyer, but suspects Parkinson's may have been a factor in the race. When she fainted during an appearance in Rochester, N.Y. -- a spell she attributed to dehydration -- it made national news.

Many of the state's powerful Democrats balked at endorsing her, and the Tampa Tribune said in an editorial that her health was an issue voters should consider.

In an interview, Reno said she takes medications to reduce hand tremors. She has had none of the other symptoms.

"I keep waiting for them to appear," she said.

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