Annette Funicello, MS, and Death

The headlines alternate between confusing and frightening.  Annette Funicello, the Disney Mouseketeer and also Frankie’s Beach Blanket Sweetheart, passed away this week at the age of 70, and the headlines are saying she died of complications from MS. I grew up watching the Mickey Mouse Club  weekdays after school, and her passing resonates with me on so many levels. It feels like I’ve always known Annette, and when she went public with her diagnosis, she became the second person I knew with MS - the first person I knew  was my mother’s sister, Zelpha. These two women provided me with the foundation for the knowledge of MS that I have today.

Even my husband, who knows quite a bit about MS thanks to living with me, asked tonight what that headline really meant.  He explained he knows MS doesn’t kill people – and technically he is right in most cases.  In very rare instances, MS lesions can affect the brain stem and autonomic function and create problems with our heart  or breathing - but as I said, that is rare.  The plain truth is MS doesn’t normally kill people.

For some time I have said MS won’t kills us, but it can make our lives hellish - this is especially true for people such as Annette, who became incapacitated because of her disease.  There are several ways that complications from MS can cause our demise and I’ll share a few here so the headline ‘died from complications of MS’ can be better understood.

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Pneumonia:  The less we move around, the more susceptible we are to not breathing fully and having problems with pneumonia can easily develop; for people who are wheelchair or bed ridden, pneumonia poses a very real health threat.  It is necessary for the lungs to be used fully to clear fluid from them, and that is difficult, if not impossible to do, when you are bed ridden or confined to a wheelchair.

Aspiration pneumonia can occur when we are unable to swallow correctly, another problem that can occur with MS. If we swallow food or beverages and it ends up in our lungs instead of our digestive system, it can create the conditions for bacterial pneumonia to develop as well.  Dysphagia,  problems with swallowing due to damage to the nerves that control this fuction, can be a common problem for people living with MS, and create conditions for aspiration pneumonia.

Bed sores: Pressure points on the body, from sitting or lying in the same position too long can turn into bed sores.  Once those begin, it doesn’t take much for them to become infected, grow larger,  and create more problems.  The infections from open wounds created by pressure can be very difficult to heal and lead to other complications.

Urinary tract infections: MS almost always creates havoc with bowel and/or bladder function.  It doesn’t take much for a UTI to develop from urinary retention, frequency or urgency - all very common problems with MS.  UTI’s are known to cause pseudo-exacerbations, and if left untreated, a UTI can quickly turn into sepsis – an infection in the blood stream that can harm our internal organs and cause death. Sepsis must be treated quickly and aggressively, and it requires the patient to be able to articulate the problems they feel in their body long before they become apparent to a doctor.  I have first-hand experience with sepsis,  and frighteningly did not recognize the problem until I required hospitalization.

Fall risks: We know that elderly people who fall risk breaking a hip or pelvis, often don’t recover from those injuries.  The same is true for people with MS – a fall can create the perfect storm for the beginning of a downward health spiral and be hard to reverse.   Injuries from falls can leave us immobile for long recovery periods, making pneumonia, bed sores and UTI’s a greater possibility.

These are just a few examples that immediately come to mind as to how Multiple Sclerois can further complicate our lives.

From what I can piece together, it is written that Annette Funicello had an aggressively progressive form of MS, which leads me to think that she lived with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, a form that affects about 10% of the people with MS.  I don’t know the particular cause of her death, and I doubt it will ever be determined or made public as to what exactly caused her demise.  Maybe her heart was just worn out, fighting to keep alive.

I hope those of you reading this and fearing the worst from your MS, or even worse the people fearing for your loved one living with MS, will understand that Multiple Sclerosis isn’t going to kill us.  Annette leaves a legacy of wanting to further MS research for a cure, and providing hope to everyone living with MS and it’s up to us to honor that legacy by finding ways to set aside the worries caused by the headlines and living our lives in the best way possible.

Wishing you well,


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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