Melanie Lawson: living with MS

KTRK anchor Melanie Lawson been an on-air staple in the Houston community for more than 30 years. Fans know her as talented and committed and with an infectious spirit. But some days are an extreme struggle for Lawson because of difficulties with mobility and fatigue associated with multiple sclerosis.

As a young girl, Lawson did not dream of a career in broadcasting. Growing up in segregated Houston in the Third Ward during the 1950s, she said the thought never crossed her mind. So she headed off to college at Princeton to study politics. Then she went on to Columbia and after graduating with a joint degree in law and journalism, she accepted a position at a Wall Street law firm.

It wasn’t long before she saw practicing law wasn’t for her and she returned to Houston and took a position as a general assignments reporter on Channel 13. She was soon promoted to anchor of the weekday and midday shows – a rigorous schedule that she thought would be ended by an MS diagnosis.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. MS symptoms are variable and the most common symptoms are overwhelming fatigue, visual disturbances, altered sensation and difficulties with mobility. The exact cause of MS is still unknown.

Lawson refuses to let the disease rule her life. She talked with the Defender about what it’s like living with MS.

Defender: How did you find out that you have MS and why did you decide to go public?

Melanie Lawson:I kept having strange symptoms. I would have tingling and numbness in my arms and legs. I would tire easily. I kept thinking, “something isn’t right.” When I would go to the doctor, they would say I was under a lot of stress and needed to exercise more and get my rest. I was convinced there was something more to it. So when the diagnoses finally came, it was tough to hear but it proved to me that there was a name to what I was feeling. At the time, I thought, “That’s it, it’s the end of my career. I’m going to have to hang it up.” But my boss was so generous. He basically said, “Just tell us what you need,” and they would figure it out. And that’s been their approach all along.

I decided to go public because my parents and some of my friends pushed me to do so, saying I could help someone else perhaps in some difficult situation. They knew that I had always been very open and transparent with my church and community. Plus, they knew that it would be a terrible secret to try and drag around. Some people already knew that I have some physical challenges. I didn’t walk as gracefully as I should. There were times when I would stumble and fall. So, it just seemed the natural thing to do – to go ahead and be open about it.

Defender: How do you manage those painful days when you just rather stay in bed and not go to work?

Lawson: I guess I’m like anybody else. You just get up and keep going and it’s the alternative to just curling up in a ball. That’s never been who I am and there’s certainly some days where I think of a million things I would rather do than go to work but that’s everybody. I’ve always believed that you just have to keep going. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And it’s important to show other people that you can still do it. It doesn’t matter. We all have something but we can’t succumb. We have to be able to get up and get going and do what you have to do.

Defender: You have put actions behind your words and become an advocate for MS. Was this something you purposely decided to do?

Lawson:I’ve been involved with the MS Society over the years. I can’t say that I’ve done anything specific. I haven’t done any major fundraisers, but I’ve certainly been involved in raising awareness. And it’s an organization that I really admire. I think a lot of what I’ve done has been more one-on-one. It’s what I call my mission. I’m always approached by people who I know have been diagnosed themselves or have had a family member or loved one diagnosed and they want to talk about how I deal with it.

I will get people who call and say, “My daughter seems discouraged. Can you talk with her?” or “My daughter just found out she has MS. Can you tell her what it’s going to be like?” I consider that my mission to be able to sit down and talk to somebody whether it is in person, or on the phone, or emailing each other back and forth just to ensure that life goes on.

Defender: What has been the most difficult part for you when it comes to managing your career and the disease?

Lawson:I suppose the same thing that most people deal with –having a chronic illness and working full-time, or taking care of an elderly parent or a child while working full-time. There are days when I’m frustrated because I can’t walk as fast or stand as long as I like. Journalism is a physical business. But, it doesn’t stop me from doing what I really need to do. I can sit down and do an interview with the best of them. I can emcee programs well, even if I’m sitting down most of the time with the microphone. I just adjust my life. I try to live most days figuring out how I can make it work.

Defender: What do you think has contributed to your longevity in the Houston community?

Lawson: I have no way of knowing. I think that half of it is the fact that I don’t just live in the Houston community, but this is where I grew up. This community is very much a part of who I am, so perhaps I have more of perspective. A lot of people that come through Houston go on to other markets. But this is home for me and I don’t plan to go anywhere.