Everyone on The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s Patient Council has “a good story,” and a unique experience living with Parkinson’s disease. Michael “Rich” Clifford’s story just happens to involve flying in outer space.
Rich was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1994 at 42, four years after the former military test pilot was asked to join NASA’s elite astronaut corps. Two years later, he was climbing aboard the shuttle Atlantis. While NASA’s medical staff and senior management knew he had PD — and were confident in his ability to fly — few others were aware.
Of his decision to keep his PD private, Rich says, “I didn’t want to be identified as the man with PD flying in space. Plus I felt the focus should be on the mission, not someone on the mission.” Years later, he retired from Boeing in 2011, where he’d worked since his third and final shuttle mission. Not long after that, he opted to share his diagnosis with the public. Since then, Rich has become an increasingly well-known figure in the Parkinson’s community, speaking to support groups and PD organizations. He encourages patients to stay active by figuring out what works best for them. He says, “Learn everything you can about the disease and don’t be afraid to talk to people — including your doctors. The more you know, the better you’ll feel.”
As a former astronaut, Rich is no stranger to medical testing and advocates participating in clinical research. He completed a profile on Fox Trial Finder (foxtrialfinder.org) and is recruiting others to follow suit. He’s already taken part in a two-week vocal training study, which he credits for “giving me my voice back — when I hadn’t even realized I was losing it.” Rich also submitted his DNA for genetic testing to 23andMe. He says, “In the long run, early diagnosis of PD through genome analysis could help patients minimize the effects of the disease.”
He first met Michael J. Fox, whom he calls “an inspiration to everyone,” last year in California. Not long after, Rich joined MJFF’s Patient Council, an advisory body providing strategic input across numerous fronts, such as how to best convey patient priorities to the research community and content for patient education and outreach.
“I’m honored to be a part of this Foundation, which is at the forefront of the field,” Rich says. He appreciates MJFF’s record of efficiency, with 89 cents of every dollar spent going straight to research. “They understand we won’t have a cure for PD until we understand the cause.” Along with his fellow members of the Patient Council, Rich hopes to help MJFF ramp up its fundraising efforts and spread the word about the need to invest in brain science.
Looking back, he admits he misses flying tremendously and, like anyone, has his moments of frustration with Parkinson’s. But, he says, “I try to stay positive. And I can’t say enough about people I’ve met with the disease. We’re all looking for a solution.”