Fever Fatale

“A fever could be life threatening.”
That single line from an old episode of “The West Wing” prompted me to immediately Google whether, in fact, a fever is fatal to someone with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis, something with which I was diagnosed in the summer of 2014. Fresh from learning I had MS, this mere suggestion plunged me into a panic. A search of “fever and multiple sclerosis” yielded over 590,000 results.

The first couple of articles I found told me patients who had low-grade fevers suffered more from chronic fatigue than others and that MS patients experience an exacerbation of symptoms when they’re overheated, whether from weather or internally high temps.
"But what about this life threatening business?" I muttered to myself as I sat at my desk, freaking out over whether what I’d heard on the classic TV show was indeed true. Could a fever prove fatal, as the fictional first lady said in the drama about a president who had relapsing remitting MS?
I kept digging. I inputted “fever and multiple sclerosis and west wing” in the search box. One of the pieces I found explored whether the show’s Jed Bartlet character accurately represented the real-life experiences of MS patients. While noting that the National Multiple Sclerosis Society had bestowed an award to the program for raising awareness about MS, it only briefly mentioned the fever issue, which became a major plot point after President Bartlet, who was suffering an MS flare-up, passed out in the Oval Office. His wife Abbey tearfully admitted it wasn’t the flu that was making him ill.
“I see you trying to cover the panic,” the chief of staff told the first lady, imploring her to reveal what was really going on.
“He has multiple sclerosis, Leo,” Abbey Bartlet said in a near-whisper. “... A fever could be life threatening.”
A newbie to all things MS, I was voraciously devouring every new piece of information about MS. This made me hyper-aware of any pop culture and news media references to the disease because MS was no longer a hypothetical or an abstract.
Not too long after I learned I had MS, I started streaming the first season of “The West Wing” on my laptop and made a realization: Jed Bartlet has MS too. I vaguely remembered that from when I watched it during its original run many years ago, but the MS storyline hadn’t emotionally registered with me then. Now it did. While I searched for a nugget of truth in that fatal fever line, I came across a mention of a newspaper article quoting the then-president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society who said, “A fever is no more deadly for people with MS than it is for the general population.”
But those petrifying pop culture MS references kept on coming and, as I was still adjusting to my post-diagnosis life, they proved jarring.
There was the father in the movie “Trainwreck” who at one point couldn’t handle his MS symptoms any longer. There was the Showtime drama about the impact of an affair on two marriages, aptly named “The Affair,” whose lead character spent his teen years caring for his mother as her MS symptoms worsened, eventually leading to son-assisted suicide. After the first MS mention in The Affair, I took to Google again. As I was typing “Is MS,” the search engine auto-filled “fatal” for me. This wasn’t helpful for a nervous patient.
Another TV drama, “Elementary,” decided to give MS to the girlfriend of a regular character. She promptly broke up with her police captain beau because she didn’t want her MS to become a “burden” to him. Confused, the police captain sought advice from a physician friend who warned of bleak times ahead. “MS is cruel,” the doctor character said. “The progression is gonna be tough on her, and you. It could take years or months, and once the disease really takes hold, she’s gonna need a lot of help.”
Yes, raising awareness of multiple sclerosis is a noble and necessary thing. But frightening MS patients, particularly recently-diagnosed ones, is quite another.
Four years into this MS experience, my antennae remain highly sensitive to pop culture MS references (there was even one onThis Is Us” last season that surprised me). But nowadays, I’m not nearly as reactive or as fearful as I used to be. All that research -- in addition to regularly peppering my neurologist with questions -- has enabled me to more deftly and confidently handle any new pop culture MS references, no matter how dire. Abbey Bartlet doesn’t scare me anymore.
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Meredith O’Brien

Meredith O’Brien is a Boston area writer and journalism lecturer. She is a die-hard Red Sox fan who lives with her husband, three kids ,and two noisy dogs. Her fourth book, "Uncomfortably Numb: A Memoir," about her MS experience, will be published in March 2020. Follow her on Twitter @MeredithOBrien, or visit her website at mereditheobrien.com.  

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  • RDMink   Nov 21, 2018 10:00 AM
  • AnyBeth  Nov 26, 2018 2:18 PM
    I agree that most information from TV shows and such concerning MS has a strong tendency to be mistaken/misleading. Including that info on fevers. But...

    Is fever fatal in MS? No. Can a fever be (more) fatal to those with MS? Yes.

    To speak of myself specifically, I have some symptoms from lesions in my brain stem that absolutely could be life-threatening. Including thermoregulation problems. My "normal" temperature range is overly-wide (6 degF), can change very quickly (3 degF in an hour and 0.5 degF in ten minutes), and has a loose relationship with the concept of "warm-blooded". Worse, the hotter I get, the less likely I am to realize I'm hot. This makes both summer and sickness dangerous for me. Since my baseline temp is so variable, knowing my temperature when I'm sick cannot indicate how far above my normal my fever is -- or, on the lower end, if I even have one. And given my temperature can change so rapidly even when nothing's wrong (but the MS), that means I don't have much leeway to work with. I talked about this with my MS neurologist and got some special instructions. While fever isn't dangerous for most adults, I'm not most adults or even most MSers. "A fever could be life-threatening" is true for my particular case. So I'm supposed to aggressively treat any fever I've reason to think might be associated with illness. And any temp I can't get down to 102 degF or that can't go a couple hours without rising to 102.5 in absence of aggressive external cooling (because you gotta sleep), I'm to treat as high risk of hyperpyrexia and head to the ER. Neuro's orders.

    I've had fevers since then, including a pretty high one that responded very well to aggressive, at-home treatment -- from an illness described as not causing fever. In most people, I suppose. Am I more likely to die from fever than other people? Certainly. Will a fever kill me? Probably not. Not many people die of fever, so that I'm more likely to be one of them than your average Joe or even MSer doesn't mean it's terribly likely to happen. I fear fever but I think my level of fear of fever is appropriate. I think it's good for me to be anxious enough to keep up on my temperature even when I'm sick.
  • Sue   Jan 16, 2019 11:15 AM
    I have had MS for twenty years diagnosed with 20 prior to that undiagnosed. I am now SPMS. A few years back I had a double kidney infection. My fever shot up to 106 degrees (not to mention the fact that normal for me is 178 - not that this is unusual, MS or not). Now 106 plus WAS borderline dangerous. Not because I have MS, but because fevers nearing 108 can cause seizures, brain damage and yes...even death. I survived and was back to normal within a week or so. Congrats on doing your homework, but I strongly recommend basing your research on legitimate medical research sites (not Web MD) and definitely NOT TV! Believe everything you see on TV and you’ll soon be searching for a talking horse for advice! LOL.
  • Andrew   Jan 16, 2019 11:16 AM
    I have heard two MS jokes in the show "Family Guy". One where Peter thinks that MS stands for "monkey scrotum" and another where Peter complains that a person is walking "slower than someone with MS". I am convinced the writer has a friend or family member with MS.
  • Kevin Shirey   Jan 16, 2019 3:33 PM
    I haven't had a fever in quite a while so I can't relate to that and MS. But I can relate to illness and my MS. Since my diagnosis I've found that whenever I get flu like symptoms or a really bad cold it short circuits my mobility. I have a lot more difficulty getting around. As soon as the illness passes so dose the added difficulty.
  • Mary Susla Beaver   Dec 23, 2019 12:08 AM
    I just watched this episode of The West Wing myself and immediately googled the same thing. It was reassuring when I came across your blog.