Hitting a Nerve

Taming a terrible illness


Darth Vader is, to me, one of the most intimidating villains in movie history. I was 11 when Star Wars came out. I even cleaned my room so my mother would take me to see it.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

When Darth Vader first walked on screen, it was striking. A tall, imposing figure in black, with harsh mechanical respirations. There was no question of who the bad guy was. As the movie progressed his darkness became more frightening until, in the first lightsaber battle any of us had seen, he cut down the benevolent Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Last year my family went to Disneyland. While browsing the park’s stores we saw numerous Darth Vader items ... with him now available as a teddy bear, and on T-shirts riding carousels and the Dumbo ride.

From terrifying villain to cutesy toy in 43 years.* Quite the fall from glory.

Diseases are often (and hopefully) like that. Syphilis, once the most common, feared, and incurable neurologic disease is now, for most, just a nuisance. The butt of jokes and sexual innuendos, rendered harmless by Alexander Fleming’s discoveries.

Bit by bit we see other diseases tamed. Multiple sclerosis, though still serious, becomes better controlled every year as new agents come out. The cure for Parkinson’s disease remains elusive, but agents to control the symptoms and improve quality of life are available. Even HIV, the most feared disease of the 80s and 90s, has been beaten back from a terrible death sentence to one where patients lead normal lives with antiviral therapy.

Today we face a new enemy, the COVID-19 pandemic. So far we have no definite treatments, nor shortage of ideas. Many companies are racing to develop a vaccine, and will likely, at some point, find one, but what and when are still in the future. Hopefully, like previously devastating illnesses, COVID-19 will be brought under control, too.

Alzheimer’s disease, for all practical purposes, remains untreatable and rightfully feared. Perhaps the only ones more terrifying are those we’ve reduced to just three letters: ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and GBM (glioblastoma multiforme). Both have terrible courses and, in spite of years of research, nothing even close to an effective treatment.

I hope that changes, and soon, for all those affected by these (and many other) terrible disorders.

Like the Darth Vader teddy bear, I’ll be happy to see them become shells of their former selves, with the dread they bring now reduced to the lesser trepidation seen when facing a serious, but treatable, illness.

*Correction, 8/11/20: An earlier version of this column misstated the number of years since Star Wars debuted.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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