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Stronger Together

Meredith Vieira and Richard M. Cohen thrive as parents and partners while managing his chronic disease

Jerome Groopman, M.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School and writer for The New Yorker, says his friend Cohen's work has value even for those not affected by chronic illness…yet. "All of us, one day, will be patients," says Groopman. "These stories tell us that, yes, there is a potential for loss and difficulty, but on the other hand, there's also the potential to prevail."

Cohen prizes and nourishes a few close friendships, say those who know him well. "Of all my friends, more so than I, he's the one who puts the time and effort into friendship," says Katie Doucette, an executive coach who first met Cohen when they worked together on a 1970 New York congressional campaign. "He is the one I can count on for a call on Saturday morning to check in." Cohen's friends, in return, prize his cracked sense of humor. CBS radio and TV news host Charles Osgood recalls Cohen's reaction when a viewer threatened to kill Osgood if the newsman and amateur poet continued to recite his own homey verse on the air. CBS hired a guard for Osgood; Cohen was less concerned. "Rich said that if, indeed, someone like that did shoot me, he would never be convicted," Osgood recalls merrily, " because it'd be a justifiable homicide."

Adapting to a chronic illness is a lifelong process, experts say. First, patients and families must deal with the shock and logistics of a new diagnosis, whether that means diet changes and medication for someone with diabetes or driving restrictions for someone with epilepsy.

Then, after an initial adjustment period, families facing chronic illness must learn to function without the disease's monopolizing everyone's attention. "Chronic illness has a tendency to have an insidious effect on all family dynamics," says Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. "If a family isn't careful, the disease becomes their central organizing force."

At first Cohen and Vieira may have taken this caution to an extreme: They didn't discuss Cohen's condition with their children at all until Ben was about 7, Gabriel was 5, and Lily was 3. "We figured, oh, they're so small, they don't need to know this," Vieira says. But then one night all three children saw their father plummet backward down the stairs and land on his head. They were terrified. Later that night, Ben asked his mother for answers, and she gave them. "I realized kids are intuitive; they are sensitive," she says. "He didn't know what it was, but he knew something wasn't right." From then on, MS was something the family discussed openly, though not obsessively. The parents made sure that conversation around their dinner table centered on everybody's everyday activities: Ben's soccer, Gabe's baseball, Lily's drama, and the spirited debates that naturally arose in a household of proudly stubborn individualists. Their baseball fandom tells the tale: Vieira roots for the Red Sox; Cohen, the Yankees; Ben, the Orioles; and Gabe, the Mets. Lily, now 18 — and agnostic on baseball — recalls her childhood as "completely normal." Multiple sclerosis "definitely affects everybody in the family; it affects what you are able to do, how quickly you can do something," she adds. "But everybody has something in their family that's unique."

Next: Adapting to chronic illness. >>

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