COVID-19 has put a stop to balls and galas — a highlight of the D.C. social scene but also a critical source of fundraising for many organizations. As with so many things in life, however, people are adapting to our new pandemic norm and not abandoning the causes important to them, even in the midst of a global health crisis.
One of those causes is multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that afflicts nearly 1 million Americans — and over 2.3 million people worldwide.
Each year, the Greater D.C.-Maryland Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society raises funds to combat the disease, while also honoring the city’s diplomatic corps, with its annual Ambassadors Ball.
This year, the 42nd annual ball had to go virtual but its message still resonated, attracting a wide array of speakers and guests while raising over $300,000 to support research and treatment for those living with the disease, including 20,000 people in the D.C. area.
Several ambassadors joined the live-streamed event on Sept. 30, including Ambassador of the European Union Stavros Lambrinidis and his wife Phoebe Kapouano, who served as this year’s honorary co-chairs along with Ann Romney (wife of Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah) and Katherine Wilkens Van Hollen (wife of Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland).
WTOP Sports Director Dave Johnson — who’s the voice of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the DC United soccer team — hosted the event, which was personal for the well-known local sportscaster.
Johnson — whose mother died of MS when she was 43 — was himself diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis about a year ago.
“But my message tonight is: Look out MS. I’m back, and I’m back ready for a fight,” Johnson said. “And I brought some friends.”
One of those friends was a local baseball hero who also has a personal connection to the disease: Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, the evening’s honoree.
Zimmerman and his family created the ziMS Foundation in honor of his mother Cheryl, who was diagnosed with MS in 1995. The foundation, which is 100% volunteer-based, has raised more than $3.5 million over the last 13 years toward treatments and ultimately a cure for MS, which damages the central nervous system, interrupting the flow of information between the brain and the body.
Symptoms range from vision problems and muscle weakness to numbness and difficulty with balance. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with women diagnosed at almost three times the rate of men. The progress and severity of the disease is unpredictable and can strike without warning.
That’s what happened to Cheryl Zimmerman, who was a young wife, mother and teacher when she experienced a strange tingling in her finger in 1986, shortly after she was married. On the ziMS Foundation’s website, she recounts the gradual, insidious nature of the disease, which has progressed to the point where today she is completely reliant on others for her daily needs.
“My current challenges are finding competent caregivers and surviving in a world which has little time or patience for the handicapped,” she writes on the website.
Despite over two decades of challenges, her husband Keith says they are “the lucky ones” because they have each other, two sons and family and friends who help them.
“Cheryl and I often talk about the people that are suffering with MS that don’t have this kind of support,” he writes. “Now the doctors and tests are better able to diagnose MS. Now the people that have a tingling in their little finger have a chance of new procedures and medicines.”
But he added: “These new medicines and diagnosing procedures take dedicated people and money.”
During the Ambassadors Ball virtual discussion, Ryan Zimmerman echoed his father’s message, saying his family is fortunate to have a platform to raise funds toward MS research and treatment.
Dave Johnson, who interviewed Zimmerman and his wife Heather during the event, observed that “what is beautiful about this multiple sclerosis community is the positive attitude that is so important.”
In fact, he says his inspiration to become a broadcaster came from his desire to entertain his mother, who was in a wheelchair for the first 15 years of his life. “She’d listen to me pretend to do play-by-play — it was just me and her,” Johnson said in a WTOP article last year after his diagnosis.
Zimmerman said the disease puts everything into perspective. “When you think you’re having a rough day, you’re really not having a rough day. When I go 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, which I’ve done many times, it’s not as bad as you think it is.”
The Nats first baseman said that when he does complain, his mother is the first one to tell him “to clean it up, which is why she’s the best, and obviously a positive influence on Heather and I.”
Zimmerman’s wife called Cheryl “a force to be reckoned with. She is a strong woman and she is … is able to power through in her daily life.”
Zimmerman — who has played for the Washington Nationals since his professional debut in 2005 — said he’s grateful for all of the support he’s received from the local community, both through baseball and through his foundation.
That support reached a fevered pitch last year when Zimmerman helped the Nats win the World Series, sending the city into a celebratory frenzy.
And while professional baseball resumed this year despite the coronavirus pandemic, there are no fans in the stands and there won’t be the kind of victory parade that D.C. saw last year, when tens of thousands of fans decked out in red and white thronged the streets of the nation’s capital.
“It was a pretty special year,” Zimmerman reflected. “Even if we win it again, I don’t know if anything could match that year.”
COVID-19 has, of course, changed everything and consumed the world’s attention, threatening to sideline other health problems such as MS.
But EU Ambassador Lambrinidis said he hopes there’s a silver lining to these trying times.
“If COVID has taught us anything, it is that health crises do not stop at someone else’s door,” said Lambrinidis, who noted that a friend from his days at Amherst College died from MS several years ago. “I firmly believe that our passion and compassion to stand by others facing serious disease has been if anything heightened by COVID. So today, in the midst of this terrible global health crisis, we remember that people with MS need us more than ever.”
Over the past 41 years, the Ambassadors Ball has raised more than $21 million to support the National MS Society. To view this year’s virtual ball, click here or below.
Anna Gawel (dc-insider.com) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.