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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.

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.


  • Ojibajo
    6 years ago

    I have to admit when I heard the news of her passing and watched the video clip of her husband caring for her in her final days, I immediately thought, “Holy #$*%! Is that what I’m going to end up like!?!? I was terrified! Other than having MS I am 37 years old and otherwise healthy. I can’t imagine that! Her husband so lovingly cared for her. She was dressed everyday, hair, brushed, glasses on, fingernails painted, but was she “in there”. She didn’t seem to respond at all. She had lost her ability to speak several years ago. And her ability to walk and really move at all years before that. In the video she made no noise or indication at all that she had any idea that she was aware of anything that was going on and it was heartbreaking. No smile, or grunt or grimace. Nothing. However I can’t think of that because I have to get up and go to work everyday. I have to take care of my child and I can’t be controlled by fear. At the same time. I am doing things like walking in WalkMS and I cannot get ONE person to make a donation. It’s not trending with pretty colored pink ribbons, hats and shirts and novelty items, like breast cancer. We get orange. No one likes orange. MS is not believed to be terminal like breast cancer, so I guess people think having MS is is “not really all that bad” so they don’t need to donate money for research. It’s frustrating.

  • Bob
    6 years ago

    That’s a little scary since 75% of my lesions are in my spine. I recently started having sleep apnea and all that I have read I shouldn’t have those problems. I am not obese or even had breathing problems in the past. It’s curious to have odd problems crop up. I am use to various degrees of numb legs since 1993. Breathing problems is definitely something to worry about.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Bob, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to request a sleep study to fully understand your sleep apnea. Sleep problems in people with MS are more common than once thought. I had the study done and now use a CPAP machine at night – it really makes a difference in my quality of sleep. – Laura

  • dedeye
    6 years ago

    My mother-in-law died from “complications” from MS.. Pneumonia, bedsores.. She was in a wheelchair for the 5 years I knew her, and was my first experience with MS.. I hope Annette’s passing brought awareness to MS.

    Rest in peace…

  • Ambassador of orange
    6 years ago

    Laura, I have to disagree with your take about the headline of dying from complications of MS. If someone is stabbed with a rusty knife and gang green sets in did the gang green cause the death so the person who stabbed the victim does not get charged with murder? A problem many of us who participate in the fund raisers for the various MS charities is the downplaying of the disease itself. I watched the TV interview with Annette shown on ET. It was scary for me because many of the symptoms she was showing are far to similar to those that I see everyday in my house. The person I know was diagnosed with RRMS in 1989, re diagnosed in 2002 with secondary progressive. She never had epilepsy before but does now. Since her diagnosis with epilepsy I have watched her cognitive functions diminish drastically. The other day she could not even remember how to write the letter Z. Last year when trying to address a card to her Mother she had to ask how to spell Mom. Point is Which disease will get the blame for this decrease? The Epilepsy she did not have for the first 38 years of her life or the MS. We have come a long way in the last 17 years I have been involved with fundraising but I have to wonder how much farther we could have come if we followed Jerry Lewis’s fundraising model. The model of finding the worst case scenario’s such as Ms. Funicello and tugged at peoples heart strings… tug on the heart strings and you will find the strings to the wallet are not far behind. I now death is a scary thought but Birth is a terminal illness. If we were never born we would never die.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Hi, AoO. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – you are so right about MS not gathering the national spotlight for support, similar to many other diseases who have been positioning their organizations for the attention and money. Your closing statement resonates with me because I once had someone write that a comment I wrote about the odds of dying are 1:1 and that had made her depressed. It’s unavoidable. be well, Laura

  • Wanda
    6 years ago

    I don’t live in fear of my MS….I live with acceptance of it. What choice do we really have? I was diagnosed in 2002 with Progressive MS, and in 2004 with Autonomic Dysfunction with vasovagal episodes and syncope. Each day is rougher than the day before….but I still wake up feeling blessed. With this disease we never know what tomorrow might bring. So we have to be grateful for our “todays”.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Wanda, a good friend has also been having autonomic dysfunction from her MS and from her experiences I somewhat understand the difficulties you face. I am so sorry you have those episodes to deal with, and really appreciate your ability to remain grateful. ~Laura

  • Cleo
    6 years ago

    Thank you so, so much for posting this piece. When I first saw the headline, I’ll admit I was scared for me. I felt so selfish for that as Annette was such a beautiful soul who suffered greatly with this illness. We are so blessed to live in a time of great progress with research and medicines but deep down, we all fear what MS could do to us. Thank you again and God bless.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Cleo, You and everyone else reading this should know that you are not alone in those quiet fears. The headlines of celebrities with MS always bring those concerns to the surface for me. You’re right – we are in a much better time. best, Laura

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