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MS `victim' sold on rock for playing its part in fight
by Kay Moore
Houston Chronicle; Houston, Tex.; Sep 6, 1985

Mae Nacol couldn't really be blamed for being a little ignorant about rock music.

Like many other adults in her particular strata of success, the high-powered Houston trial lawyer kept the car stereo in her Porsche tuned to a soothing, classical music station most of the time.

All that was before June 1984.

Now giant portraits of British rock greats like Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Jimmy Page line the walls of her ninth-floor office in the Bank of Texas Building downtown.

To Nacol, these rock stars are now kindred spirits in her fight against multiple sclerosis.

Plastering her office with their portraits is the least she can do to pay tribute.

This unlikely link between dignified attorney and the pride of the ``British invasion'' occurred last summer when Nacol received a call from a physician friend, Dr. Phillip James of the University of Dundee, Scotland.

Since her own MS diagnosis in 1978, Nacol had become a walking encyclopedia about this progressively degenerative condition that attacks the central nervous system with a variety of symptoms ranging from blindness to bowel and bladder incontinence to paralysis.

No cause is known for the condition, nor is there a cure.

``They tell you to sit back and wait, but I wasn't willing to,'' she says.

First she trailblazed by founding the HBO Medical Center of Houston, which brought hyperbaric oxygen to Houston in 1981. With HBO, a patient sits in a pressurized tank while pure oxygen is forced in and out, speeding oxygen to the diseased tissue. Nacol, who was bedridden before the treatments, got a new lease on life as a result.

Once in remission, Nacol began using her best investigative skills to learn as much about the condition as any doctor. She haunted the library at the Texas Medical Center. ``I ended up building a small library of my own,'' she says.

In the process, she ran across the name of James and pursued him in order to learn more about MS research in Europe.

Then last summer came the call from James that would give Nacol an even more global cause.

James asked her if she would help British rock star Ronnie Lane, who had recently been sidelined in his career by her old enemy, MS. Lane was on his way to Houston for treatment at the HBO Medical Center at 5220 Travis.

``He was a basket case,'' recalls Nacol. ``He was as bad as I was in 1979. He was blind in one eye, had little vision in the other one and couldn't walk. We got him in for emergency treatment immediately.''

Only then did she learn that the frail patient recently had held an all-star benefit tour in the United States to raise $3 million for multiple sclerosis research. He was joined by his rock musician pals such as Wood, Watts, Page, Beck, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Ian McLagan, Jan Hammer and Simon Phillips, who virtually ``came out of the woodwork'' when they heard of the need.

This followed a September 1983 all-star benefit concert in London's Royal Albert Hall to benefit the Action for Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) of England.

During his weeks at the Houston HBO center, Lane took notice of what Nacol and her sister Barbara, then executive director, were doing to help people.

Back on his feet after 17 days of HBO, Lane told Nacol he wanted to give $1 million from the 1983 concert to start an ARMS of America, with Houston as its headquarters. He wanted Nacol to direct the nationwide, non-profit group.

``He said that if the cause and cure for MS was going to be found anywhere, it would be in America because the finest minds and the best research were here,'' he says.

Instead of being thrilled at Lane's offer, Nacol at first wanted to turn and run. With her health stabilized due to HBO treatments, her legal practice had flourished. Recently, she had trimmed her work week back to three or four days. A single parent, she at last was able to spend more time with her two teen-agers and at her new farm near Houston where she bred Tennessee walking horses.

``I had worked all my life,'' says Nacol, a member of Houston's Nacol jewelry family. ``I was selling diamonds by the time I was 5 years old.

``I was at last to the point where I could devote more time to my children and my hobbies. He was asking me to take on an important task and give up the freedom I had worked so hard for.''

However, Lane summoned her to England, where she met with ARMS personnel and Glyn Johns, who produced the celebrated 1983 concert.

She saw the family counseling, demographic surveys, diet counseling and other services that ARMS was providing routinely to MS victims in Great Britain.

Ultimately, she was convinced.

``What they had done in England was like my dream come true,'' she says.

When the start-up money was presented to city officials here last December, Lane issued the challenge: ``The Brits started USA-ARMS, and I would expect the American musicians to keep it going.''

In keeping with that challenge, ARMS will bring the Elvis Presley Traveling Museum to Houston Thursday through Sept. 15. Visitors can see many personal effects of the late ``king of rock and roll,'' including his Cobra racing car. The $1 per person contribution will go toward ARMS research.

Nacol says ARMS of America differs from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in that only persons who are MS sufferers, relatives or extremely close friends may be members.

``Only those who are affected by the disease truly understand the seriousness of the problems that we face,'' she says.

Since January, Nacol has been getting the word out about ARMS of America's nationwide toll-free hot line (1-800-USA-ARMS). Trained volunteers are on hand to answer questions from MS victims around the country. Many times those calls are taken by Nacol, who runs ARMS in a suite down the hall from her law office, or even by Lane, who now lives here to be near the HBO and other therapies.

``If you don't understand the disease, you'll never be able to control it. It will control your life until you understand it,'' says Nacol.

Nacol says she's convinced that MS is still considered a rare disease because so few people are familiar with it. She says MS numbers will go up as people begin to learn some of its warning signals.

For example, women are often told they have bladder incontinence because they have borne children, but it's also one of the first symptoms of MS, says Nacol. People with blurred vision are told it's because they're working too hard.

``If you've got any combination of bladder incontinence, extreme fatigue, blurred vision, or a little numbness like your foot is going to sleep, you need to get to your family doctor and get checked out.''

People who phone ARMS-America are mailed a crimson brochure bearing the ARMS slogan, ``We do more than just wait!''

Inside are leaflets with documented information on:

Current MS treatments and their side effects.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a new and painless tool for diagnosing and monitoring MS.

Newest findings on hyperbaric oxygen. Originally looked on with skepticism in the medical world, HBO got a boost in 1983 after New York University Medical School showed that a large group of patients in a control study improved immediately after HBO treatment, says Nacol.

The importance of exercise and diet in MS management.

The effects of MS on sexuality.

Most importantly, someone is there to answer the suicide calls - the people who are ready to ``blow their brains out,'' as Nacol was once.

People often complain of dark moods, short tempers and frequent crying spells.

``If you have a swelling in the brain, you're going to have irritability,'' says Nacol. ``Families need to understand these things.''

Most of the money is going toward research at three places: Texas A&M University, the University of Texas Medical School and the Oregon Health Science University.

The research is probing theories about MS other than the usual ones: that MS is caused by a virus or by problems in the body's immune system.

One alternative is the fat embolism theory, which means that fat gets into a vein and goes into the brain, causing leakage. The toxins in the blood destroy the tissue.

``I have no doubt that within the next five years we will have the cause of MS,'' she says.

Nacol admits she's involved in ARMS for ``very selfish reasons.'' In probing her family history, she discovered five cousins who have MS; a sixth was diagnosed this year. Her sister Barbara now works with her at ARMS.

``I have two children,'' she says. ``I can't afford to wait for the answers.''

Besides MS, Nacol is now also a walking encyclopedia on rock music.

``I listen to it every day,'' she says.

Of the musicians she's grown to appreciate, Nacol says: ``Their public and private image is so different. They're so down to earth; they have very strong feelings about their families. They're not the ravers that everyone thinks they are. People think they're into drugs and things. But they're all businessmen.''

For example, of drummer Kenney Jones, she says: ``He's the kind of guy you wouldn't mind your daughter going out with.''

 


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