Thursday, March 25, 2010

Multiple Sclerosis on Law & Order

Did you happen to see Law & Order: Special Victims Unit last night? I did.

The main character who was victimized (raped and abused) was a 41-year old black woman living with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. It was mentioned that she had a very aggressive form of the disease.

In the show, she was not only wheelchair bound but she was a quadriplegic who couldn't speak nor apparently move her mouth even. She could blink. One for yes; two for no. The characterization reminded me of "locked in syndrome." which can be seen in ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gerig's Disease) patients.

To make the story more interesting, and tragic, the woman with MS had been a famous opera singer. Beautiful, successful, courageous. Her sister, who had also become her caregiver, was the longtime jealous sibling who now took out her frustrations by beating her paralyzed sister. Abuse by the hands of caregivers is apparently not uncommon according to the portrayal in this episode, but the sister is forgiven in the end by the MS patient while power-of-attorney is transferred to the nephew.

One bit of evidence which was used in the conviction of the serial rapist (who was the driver for the disabled bus service in the area) was fingerprints on the woman's adult diaper. Never mind that the woman most likely had a catheter in place to catch her urine, the absence of the diaper was the indication for medical professionals to check for signs of sexual abuse.

Although this woman was unable to move, unable to speak, unable to use her operatic voice to communicate, it turns out that she could move the index finger on her right hand. She used it to caress her nephew's face in one scene and later she used it to identify her rapist in the courtroom.

We are nearing the end of Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness Month here in March. I wonder if the timing of this episode of Law & Order was meant to coincide or if this was pure coincidence. Either way, I wonder what you think.

Please watch the synopsis video below and answer a few questions:

Was the portrayal of a highly aggressive case of chronic progressive MS helpful in spreading awareness of the disease, or hurtful in characterizing MS patients as invalids?

In our country, we know that cancer can kill and bo-koos of money is donated for research. Do you think that heightened public awareness of the potential devastating effects of the disease might lead to more dollars donated towards research?

Or does this portrayal simply spread fear among those who might have a loved one newly diagnosed with MS, or for the patient himself who faces the vast unknown of the future?

Would it have been helpful to have had a minor character in the episode - someone who was mobile, employed, non-disabled, and for all practical purposes completely "normal" - reveal that he/she also had multiple sclerosis for x number of years? Would this have given a better picture of the wide-ranging possible outcomes?

What are your thoughts? Please respond in the comments below.

P.S. Often Law & Order: Special Victims Unit includes a public service announcement as a postlogue. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the National MS Society to coordinate with the writers on the show to briefly (in 30-45 seconds) give a rundown on MS in this country. And an appropriate time to help gear up for all of the MS Walks which are about to take place all across the country.


  1. I get irritated when shows portray MS this is one of the reasons I thought I was being given a death sentence when I first received my dx in 2008. Since then I have educated myself on what MS can and does mean to most people with the dx. SVU would have done a better service to ppl if they had portrayed the aspects of the disease that we all deal with and like you said- this was a perfect opportunity for the MS society to spread/raise awareness.

  2. Lisa,

    Not only was MS featured so prominently on this episode, but on another recent episode, an aunt of a victim used a walker as a mobility aid because she had MS.

    Yes, I think it would have been great for the introduction of another character on this week's show who had MS but looked "normal". But at least an effort has been made to get MS out there. I do have to say that NBC, of all the networks, has had more MS characters on its shows. The West Wing, Law and Order (Ray's wife), Homicide: Life on the Street (it was a small role), ER has had a couple of characters over the years with MS, including a young woman who became romantically linked to Dr. Pratt for a short while.

    I was surprised watching a rerun of the Sopranos recently when one character was talking about how his son's interferon was costing him 20 grand a year for his MS. The Sopranos, of course, was an HBO production.

    I know that someone at NBC has a connection to MS through a family member, but can't quite figure out or remember who.


  3. Thank you for the comments. There are a few shows which I enjoy regularly, but I'm not the one who mans the remote in this house. LOL. It was just coincidence that Law & Order was being watched instead of something on Bravo (ie. a "reality" show of one kind or another).

    I had not thought about the various shows which have featured characters living with MS on NBC. I've watched many of the shows you mention Shauna.

    One thing I find curious is that I've come across several MSers online who feel that the progressive forms of the disease are not featured enough in literature (and media I presume). But then there are others who want to see all the MSers living normal lives.

    How do we satisfy all the needs and various angles while also not becoming the token mystery disease which is always investigated alongside Lupus on shows like House?

    I don't have an answer, but just find it interesting. Do we see what we want to see around us?

    And what is it we want to see?

    I do appreciate that NBC is not afraid to bring issues in front of us and to make us think and to become more aware.

  4. I just saw this today because I had to DVR the show last night.

    I started watching it after reading your post, so I was already in a state of getting-pissed-off-ness because I never seem to see a television character with MS who isn't in a terrible way - except for President Bartlett on The West Wing. And I'm still not happy with the way the whole story of Ray's wife was handled on L&O.

    I have to say, I thought this episode was very moving and powerful. I liked the way the doctor explained the girl's disease to Olivia. I also appreciated the fact that MS was not mentioned repeatedly; rather, words like "disabled" and "handicapped" were more frequently heard. And she was a "victim of abuse", not a "person with MS being abused." You know what I'm trying to say?

    Honestly, the performances were what really sold me. All of them, but especially Jill Scott [the evil sister]. She is a jaw-droppingly talented actress IMO. I have to give this episode a rollicking Two Thumbs Up.

  5. Yes, the explanation given regarding the character's disease was excellent. Even mentioning that patients may die from complications of the disease, often pneumonia.

    I agree that the acting was excellent all around and I enjoyed watching!

  6. I watched the show this morning on tape and although I thought it was an accurate depiction of the progressive "end stage" of MS, I did think it would scare newly diagnosed MSers.

    I find it ironic that many MSers are/were professional, active people who are stricken with this disease.

    I agree with your statement about the catheter.

    It was painful to watch the sister's abuse scenes, but it is so true that incapacitated and disabled people are too often mentally and physically abused that it is overlooked.

    Although these types of programs tie up most loose ends within the 44 minutes they are allotted, I think this program did MSer's proud.

    I agree that an MS foundation could have used this program to make a statement at the beginning or the end which should have/could have included how many are diagnosed with MS so that our undiagnosed and wondering patients might give some thought that "maybe that is what is wrong with me."

    It is a shame that character's initial symptoms could not have been worked into the script (maybe with the nursing home doctor who outlined the worse symptoms of MS) the way her opera career was introduced through photographs/video.

    All in all, a good program which brought awareness to MS, the disabled, the abused disabled, and the dangers of having varied and non-consistent caregivers.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this program in your forum.

  7. Hard to watch. That could be me, or you, any of us. The MS Society seems to ALWAYS be dropping the ball. WHY? I agree that showing the progression would have been perfect, people, even those with MS, seem more happy to ignore that word: chronic progressive---we ALL have a progressive form of MS. No? Introduce me to some 80 year olds with MS. I say more shows like this. People don't know MS. The worst among us hide indoors. The poorest among us hide where we can drop. It IS hard to see and scary, but we will never get funding if we just have a limp. House shows the world that canes are cool. The MS societies celebrate hikers, bikers, swimmers, and rich people; Montel says just follow his diet/exercise--no big deal. Who would give money for MS when cancer looks so ugly? You lose your hair! The horror! sigh (I'm a cancer survivor, so don't trash on me) MORE MORE MORE Not ONE, NOT ONE caregiver I ever have had knew what MS was. The medical staff at the local ICU didn't know. Pathetic. Look how fast people stopped dying from AIDS when the money started rolling in.

  8. I caught the last few minutes of the show ---wow. I really liked it. There was a time that the protrayl of MS would have SCARED ME TO DEATH. Now I feel lucky that that lady's situation has not happened to me.

  9. Maybe the MS Society will send something to the networks advocating a "pre-taped" public service announcement about MS and where to learn more. This way the networks will not have to contact them a each episode regarding MS

  10. Thanks for your comment on my post about the same show (

    I agree that after the opening sequence, the show got better and gave what appeared to my eyes a pretty fair representation of the physical symptoms of very advanced/aggressive MS. I also liked how the show highlighted caregiver abuse, which is very prevalent among people living with disabilities. However, my rant about the first 2 minutes before the opening credits was not so much about how accurate they portrayed the disease itself, but how ridiculously narrowminded and uninformed they were in the representation of the consequences of that disease, i.e. the disability. From the layout of the department, to the convenient replacement of a catheter with a diapers or you can get a latent print, to the inappropriate choice of language used by the doctor to describe a wheelchair user, to the most infuriating thing of all: taking away this woman's (figurative) voice and personal power.

    There were so many opportunities in this episode to educate not just about MS, but also about disability. Instead, they stuck to the same old portrayal of disability as powerless, voiceless, acted upon, completely debilitated and incapable. Wouldn't it have been interesting if say, an advocate for women with disabilities who had experienced abuse had been included in the storyline and said advocate was a woman with a disability herself?

    Apparently, I'm still steaming about this. I'll shut up now. ;)

  11. I watched this episode over the weekend and was glad to see SVU discussing multiple sclerosis on this level. It's probably because it hit home for me. My mother passed away two years ago from an advanced stage of MS (and complications). She spent the last two years of her life in a state similar to the main character and was African-American as well. I know that it's difficult to watch and can be difficult to think about but it is a reality for some of us.

    Sure, not everybody will end up like my mother or the character, but plenty of people do AND not enough of members of the public know about that. My favorite part was watching her point out her attacker. I clapped and pumped my fist because I remember how proud I was when my mother would utter a "Yes," or lift her arm. It's one portrayal in what I would hope would be more on TV and in movies. I do wish that the MS Society would've recorded a PSA about the disease/the organization though. Just as an additional learning opportunity for individuals...