In December 1996, chart-topping, country singer, Clay Walker, now 41, was on tour in Alberta, Canada, when with his band and road crew he hit the gym for a basketball game. “Walking into the gym, I noticed my right leg felt like it was asleep, as though I slept on it funny,” he says. “I kept shaking it to wake it up.” A few minutes into the game, he says he fell to the floor. “Every time I’d try to stand back up, I’d fall down. It was though I was completely intoxicated.”
After falling about 5 times, Walker says he looked up at the net and saw double. “That’s when I knew something was definitely wrong.” Later that night, Walker took the stage despite the residual pain in his right leg. He also experienced trouble playing guitar. “I couldn’t hold the pick between my thumb and fore finger because I couldn’t feel it.”
Walker dismissed these symptoms, attributing them to an accident suffered two years earlier. “A box fell on my head causing some minor spine damage that included my thumb and fore finger, and dragging my right leg.”
Thinking he re-injured his neck, Walker visited a neurosurgeon where an MRI and series of neurological tests ended with the diagnosis of Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS), the most common form of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a complex autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves). Walker was experiencing his symptoms because MS strips nerves of their myelin sheath (the insulation around nerves), causing differing degrees of damage throughout the body. His form, RRMS, accounts for approximately 40% of all MS cases.
“I didn’t even know what MS was. I’d never heard of it,” Walker shares. Because he didn’t feel “sick”, the crooner tried to rationalize away the diagnosis thinking “the doctor is wrong” and “maybe he’s just guessing”. “My world was turning upside down. It was such a shock.”
Walker says he came face-to-face with his mortality a few days later during a (routine) spinal tap. “I had tears rolling down my face wondering if I’d be alive or able to someday walk my girls down the aisle at their weddings,” says the dad of four.
“I worried I’d someday be in a wheelchair.”
No time to wallow
Walker channeled his fears into advocacy for his health, developing a strong relationship with his doctor. “My doctor said finding the right treatment plan for me might take some fine tuning. But that we’d stick with it until we found one.” It took more than a year to find which medication would arrest his disease. “I’ve been taking injections daily for over 10 years that have kept my MS in remission.”
He also cut out some habits he thought were unhealthy. “I steer clear of refined sugar, sodas and carbonated drinks.” Walker also makes moderate exercise part of his schedule. “I work out 3 to 4 times a week by riding a bike, lifting weights or using an elliptical cross-trainer.”
All in the family
As a youngster, Walker recalls his grandmother being diagnosed with “tic douloureux” a chronic condition that causes extreme, sporadic, sudden burning or shock-like face pain. She later had brain surgery to correct a neurological disorder that caused dizziness and affected her ability to stand. “Looking back, her symptoms were exactly like my MS symptoms,” he says. “I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t have MS, too.”
Hoping to contribute to a cure, Walker regularly participates in several charitable events that help fight MS including his own non-profit charity, Band Against MS which raises funds for MS research. He also won the 2008 Country Radio Broadcasters’ annual Humanitarian Award for his work on behalf of MS.
A little boy’s dream
Growing up on a farm in Beaumont, Texas, Walker says he knew early that he wanted to be a country recording artist. “When I was 16, and working nights as a desk clerk at a Super 8 Motel, I took a song I wrote to a local radio station.” The DJ shot down Walker’s dreams saying it was against corporate policy to play such tapes on the air. Then on the 6:30 a.m. drive home from the studio, Walker got the surprise of a lifetime. “The DJ said even though he’s not supposed to, he was going to play a song that was “too good to pass up”. I couldn’t believe my song starting playing.”
Walker made a name for himself on the Texas honky tonk circuit then graduated to national success. Since 1993, he’s placed 31 titles on Billboard’s hit list and released his ninth album, She Won’t Be Lonely Long, in June 2010.
Despite all his accomplishments, Walker believes the best is yet to come. “I trust my gut more than ever now,” he says. “I feel healthier than I ever have. The best years of my life and career are still ahead of me.”