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Ronnie Corbett: Star’s secret motor neurone diagnosis left him needing ’24-hour care’

Ronnie Corbett and Bruce Forsyth perform at The Royal Variety

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Having solidified his name in British entertainment history, Corbett had a long association with Ronnie Barker. Together the pair created The Two Ronnies BBC sketch show that aired from 1971 to 1987. As a “comedy idol” to many, news of Corbett’s death shook the nation, but back in 2016, Corbett’s wife and actress Anne Hart revealed that the star’s health trouble had first started in 2014, two years before his death.

After starting to feel unwell around Christmas in 2014, Corbett complained of breathing troubles. He soon sought the advice of various specialists before he was diagnosed with ALS – also known as motor neurone disease – at Royal Brompton Hospital in London.

“He told us it was most likely to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known in the UK as motor neurone disease,” Anne said reflecting on Corbett’s diagnosis.

“As you can imagine, it just knocked us both back. We had not really heard of it. If it hadn’t been for Stephen Hawking (who suffers from the disease) and the Eddie Redmayne film about him, The Theory Of Everything, we would not have heard of it at all.”

Following his diagnosis, Corbett’s health dwindled, with his wife and the couple’s two daughters, Emma and Sophie helping to provide “24-hour” care to the star. Only close friends were told about Corbett’s illness.

Anne added: “It became a 24-hour job with Ron getting gradually weaker. He was not in pain, and up to the last 48 hours, he was fully conscious and aware of everything.

“Some days all he managed was a few pieces of melon, a glass of champagne, and a Liquorice Allsort. His weight dropped drastically and he simply began to fade away.

“Throughout his whole illness, he never once grumbled or complained. No one could have been more courageous.”

After the star’s oxygen levels dropped dangerously low, he went into a coma. A couple of days following this, the star passed away.

Oxford University Hospitals explains that the term motor neuron disease (MND) encompasses several different conditions, all of which involve premature degeneration of motor nerves (known as neurons or sometimes neurones).

When French Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who is credited for being the first to detail descriptions about MND, looked at patients, he found that the most common feature of the condition was muscle wasting, the medical term for which is amyotrophy.

In addition to this, when looking at patients’ spinal cords, he found that many had scarring of the descending upper motor neuron pathways from the brain. The medical term for which is lateral sclerosis. As both of these processes were occurring simultaneously, Charcot coined the term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Nearly 90 percent of patients with MND have the mixed ALS form of the disease, explaining why both of the terms are commonly used to mean the same thing.

As already briefly mentioned, ALS affects motor neurons that provide voluntary movements and muscle control. These actions could be as simply as stepping off a curb or reaching for a mobile phone.

Due to this, symptoms of ALS, which generally get worse over time, include:

  • Difficulty walking or doing normal daily activities
  • Tripping and falling
  • Weakness in your legs, feet or ankles
  • Hand weakness or clumsiness
  • Slurred speech or trouble swallowing
  • Muscle cramps and twitching in your arms, shoulders and tongue
  • Inappropriate crying, laughing or yawning
  • Cognitive and behavioural changes.

The Mayo Clinic explains that the disease often begins in the hands, feet or limbs before spreading to other areas of the body. As the disease advances and more nerve cells are destroyed, other voluntary actions such as chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing are all affected.

Johns Hopkins Medicine states that there are two main types of ALS: Sporadic and familial. The former is the most common form of ALS and can occur randomly without any known cause or family history. The latter affects a small number of people and is thought to be inherited.

Although there is no cure for the condition, treatment can slow the progression of symptoms and prevent further complications allowing individuals to feel more comfortable and independent.

The FDA approved the medication riluzole, which was the first drug that has prolonged the survival of people with ALS. There are also medications available to relieve muscle stiffness and help with saliva problems.

In addition to medication, the NHS recommends occupational and physiotherapy to help individuals maintain strength, reduce stiffness and help make everyday tasks easier.

Medical professionals will also be able to assist individuals with nutritional support and speech and language therapy.

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