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U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
February 24, 2002
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U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone has revealed he has a mild, non-fatal form of multiple sclerosis. The senator made the announcement at a press conference at his home in St. Paul. He says the persistent pain in his lower right leg that he and his doctors have attributed to sports injuries, was diagnosed a month ago as 'primary progressive multiple sclerosis.' Despite the illness, Wellstone says he will continue with his re-election campaign for a third term in the U.S. Senate.

Dr. John Bartleson of the Mayo Clinic, Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, meet with reporters on Feb. 24 to announce that Sen. Wellstone has a mild form of multiple sclerosis. Listen to Wellstone's announcement.
(MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)

Sen. Wellstone announced the diagnosis while seated between his wife Sheila and his family doctor, J.D. Bartleson, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic.

"Dr. Bartleson and others at the clinic reached the judgement that I have MS disease," he announced. "It's the mild form, and when I realized that, there were two things that I wanted to do: of course I wanted to get a chance to talk to my children, and we even have grandchildren that are old enough that you talk to, and the second thing I wanted to do is to get a chance to talk with people in Minnesota and to tell people in Minnesota that I have MS."

Wellstone, 57, played down the diagnosis. At one point, he joked with a reporter about how fitting it is that he should have a so-called, "progressive" illness.

"I have a strong mind, although there are some who might disagree about that. I have a strong body, I have a strong heart, I have a strong soul, I just have a little bit of trouble with this right leg," he said.

For more than a decade, Wellstone has walked with a fairly pronounced limp in his right leg. He and his doctors attributed it to sports injuries and two resulting knee operations and an operation on his spinal cord four years ago.

Dr. Bartleson says multiple sclerosis is hard to diagnose, particularly Wellstone's type, which is mild and progressive over time.

"Currently, Sen. Wellstone is in excellent physical health, and maintains a very active lifestyle. Patients with this type of multiple sclerosis typically are able to maintain normal activities over the long term. I see no reason why Sen. Wellstone cannot continue his usual activities," Bartleson said.

Wellstone's activities include running a re-election campaign against Republican Norm Coleman, the former St.Paul mayor.

Wellstone is now at the end of his second, term. The race is considered a tight one and is one of the most closely watched in the country this year.

"I'll be able to conduct a grueling campaign that 10 people couldn't conduct. I love the work, so it's always 18 hours a day for me. Nothing's changed. I'm lucky," Wellstone said.

Wellstone's wife of 39 years, Sheila Wellstone, says she supports her husband in his bid for reelection and his fight against MS. "We will deal with this with our family the way we've dealt with everything. We are used to overcoming things together, and we will," she said.

Dr. Bartleson describes multiple sclerosis as an inflammation within the nervous system that's mediated by an immune response. The nervous system puts out antibodies that strip away the sheath covering nerve tracks moving between the nervous system.

Bartleson says there are about 330,000 Americans with MS, and about 10 to 15 percent of those cases are the type of MS that Sen. Wellstone has. He says there is no proven treatment for it. He says Wellstone does not need any intervention or medication at this time.

Wellstone says he wants people to know MS is not always totally debilitating in its progression.

"I'm perfectly pleased for people to know about it, and to know what it is and what it isn't, because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about this. I'll be pleased as this goes along for people to know more," he said.

Dr. Bartleson says he will monitor the senator regularly - about every 6 to 12 months.

Bartleson says while he can't predict with certainty, he says the most that should happen is Wellstone's right leg will remain weak. He says he doesn't expect the MS to spread to other parts of the body. At the most, he says Wellstone's left leg could be affected sometime over the next six years.

More Information
  • National Multiple Sclerosis Society
  • National Multiple Sclerosis Society - Minnesota Chapter
  • Multiple Sclerosis Foundation
  • Multiple Sclerosis Association of America