The problem was, other people didn’t share her optimism. In Hollywood, a physical handicap can be a career death sentence. So Garr kept her diagnosis quiet and tried to hide her symptoms. At her Los Angeles home, though, she routinely tumbled down stairs and dropped dishes. One Christmas, she tripped over a skateboard, crashed into the fireplace and broke her collarbone. The accidents she could handle. “Getting depressed or sad wouldn’t have helped me,” she says.
Finally she decided to let the world know her secret. Talk-show host Montel Williams had appeared on “Larry King Live,” discussing his own MS. He confessed he woke up “not wanting to get out of bed.” Later, he admitted he’d attempted suicide twice.
“I thought, there’s too much drama here,” said Garr. “What if someone went out and talked about it like a stand-up comic? If you get somebody laughing — and then stick in a point about something important — they’ll remember it.” Maybe she could use her talent to change the way people thought about MS.
On October 8, 2002, Garr went on “Larry King” and spoke publicly about her illness. King pressed her about the pain she must feel. Wasn’t she frightened? But Garr, smiling and cracking jokes, was not about to betray her mom’s legacy. “I really don’t think negatively about any of this stuff,” she said.
Garr uses the same wit that made her shine on “Letterman” to educate and uplift the spirits of MS patients and their families. As a paid spokesperson for MS LifeLines, an educational and support service funded by the drug companies Serono and Pfizer, she speaks across the country. She tells listeners about her own symptoms: the sudden, extreme fatigue, the difficulty controlling her right hand, the stumbling.
“Another big problem is memory loss,” she’ll say with a pause. “Now, what was I talking about?” Every so often, she says, her doctor asks discreetly about sexual functions. “I don’t know,” she sighs. “I haven’t been invited to any lately.”
In between the quips, Garr delivers the substance: New drugs can slow MS.
Exercise — like her Pilates class — is physically and emotionally beneficial. “It doesn’t help to contemplate how sad your life is,” she says. “You have to move on.”
A lifelong performer, Garr was used to fans’ applause. But these days, there is a different reward that has nothing to do with Hollywood opening nights. It’s ordinary people, some in wheelchairs, waiting to shake her hand. People saying that because of her, their symptoms will no longer get in the way of their dreams. Sometimes, Garr tells them about her mom. Sometimes, she mentions “EGBOK.” Sometimes, she just squeezes a hand and says, “Everything’s going to be OK.”