When Peekskill Councilman Don Bennett was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last fall, he quickly learned he was not alone.
In fact, more than 400,000 people in the United States currently have MS and an estimated 2.5 million nationwide have the autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, resulting in the loss of muscle control, vision, balance and sensitivity.
The problem is, according to Bennett, that MS “is one of the worst kept secrets,” receiving much less publicity than different forms of cancer and heart disease.
“When do you hear about it? These are the kind of issues that people should be publicizing,” Bennett said during a recent exclusive interview near the riverfront in Peekskill, where he has resided since 2000 and has served as a councilman since 2003. “I’m not saying they don’t do it, but they don’t do it well enough for the public to be aware of it. Where is the exposure?”
Last summer, Bennett, 63, who never had any major health problems, was driving home one night when he suffered a severe headache that forced him to pull over for a while. A few days later, the headache returned, but again he didn’t think much of it. Two weeks later, he was talking to a co-worker when his face suddenly went numb and he couldn’t speak.
Bennett visited the doctor and tested positive for Lyme Disease. He was later referred to a neurologist and last October a spinal tap revealed he had MS.
“I thought it was just old age. At 63, I had already outlived my father,” he said. “I started losing my balance more. I would have given up the use of my leg or my arm to get back all the functions of my brain. There’s always the chance these symptoms will either stop, slightly reverse themselves or go in another direction. You can’t worry about something that you have no control over.”
No two people afflicted with MS have the same set of symptoms and there is currently no cure. MS most commonly is diagnosed in individuals between the ages of 20 and 40 and twice as many women have MS.
Because of the fatigue and inability to focus for extended periods of time, Bennett, who recently retired after 23 years as an account manager at Pamal Broadcasting, which owns WHUD/WLNA and other area radio stations, has decided to resign from the Peekskill Common Council.
“I don’t want to be a half effective council member. I can’t serve the city and go to half the meetings,” he said. “You have to ask the people if I did anything to impact their life or their lifestyle. I hope some of the things I have asked the city staff to do have made people’s lives better. Have I been effective? I hope so.”
Bennett’s imminent departure from the council creates a new dynamic for the November election since four council seats, instead of three, and the mayor’s seat will now be up for grabs. The council can decide to fill Bennett’s seat for the last four months of the year by appointing someone, or simply leave it vacant.
Bennett, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2005, served as deputy mayor and he has been involved with many community organizations, including the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce and the Peekskill Rotary Club. A widow, he will be moving to North Carolina to live with his only son, who is in the Army.
Uncertain about the future, Bennett, who grew up in Baltimore and noted he will miss the beauty of the Hudson River, hopes to stay active and be an advocate for MS, the March of Dimes and other causes.
“You never know how active you can be if your cognizant skills are not what you’re accustomed to,” he said. “Someone said to me that I have to remake myself. As a somewhat practicing Catholic, I don’t question things that happen. I’ve come to believe the stories that it’s already written in the book. If it’s supposed to happen, it will happen.”