The Path to Tortured Rediscovery

No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality by Michael J. Fox; Flatiron Books, 2020

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Spring/Summer 2021

Many people think they know who Michael J. Fox is. Yet there was a time when Michael J. Fox wasn’t sure who he was anymore.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 30 years ago, at the age of 29, the well-known actor long considered himself an unconquerable optimist. But then came the tortured months of his annus horribilis — when that sunny outlook disappeared.

As Fox recounts in his new memoir, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, his difficult journey to rediscover himself — and regain his optimism — began in April 2018, with an extremely risky but successful spinal operation performed by Johns Hopkins’ Nicholas Theodore, head of the Department of Neurosurgery’s spine division.

Fox came to Hopkins for the removal of a large but benign tumor, unrelated to his Parkinson’s, that was on his spinal cord and basically strangling it, threatening him with paralysis. The procedure to remove it was “not one that a lot of doctors were eager to tackle,” Fox recalls. Theodore said he would.

Fox had written two previous memoirs about his youth in Canada, acting career, and confronting Parkinson’s. This new one, he says, was different. “In a way, this was the hardest book I ever had to write because it was so personal and had so much pain,” Fox said in a recent telephone interview. “But in other ways, it was the easiest book to write because it was still so fresh…. It just rolled out of me.”

With a remarkable blend of soul-searching insight and witty observations, Fox’s description of his spirit-draining trial and optimistic restoration contains exceptional kudos for Theodore and Johns Hopkins. “Everybody on his team, from the tip of the spear down, was just fantastic. I felt like I was in the best place in the world to be,” he said.

In the book, Fox recalls that when he pointed out that other neurosurgeons had shied away from performing the tumor removal operation, Theodore replied, “Who wants to be the guy who paralyzes Michael J. Fox?”

“That was really a great icebreaker,” Fox says now.

During a five-hour operation, Theodore adopted what he told Fox was a “Zen” mode, focusing intensely on one thing: removing the tumor, millimeter by millimeter. He says it was one of the most difficult procedures he ever has performed.

Fox seemed on his way to full recovery when, four months later, he had an unrelated but devastating fall in his New York apartment that shattered his left arm. The injury — which required a steel plate and 19 screws to repair — also seemed to shatter his enduring faith in the power of optimism.

Fox writes that his optimism was ultimately restored by his realization that despite all of his medical travails and the inexorable encroachment of Parkinson’s, he still had much for which he could be grateful: His devoted wife of 32 years, actress Tracy Pollan; his four adult children; the fact that he still can walk and express his feelings; his friends; his incomparable dog, Gus. “With gratitude, optimism becomes sustainable,” he writes.

For 20 years, Fox led the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has donated $1 billion to fight Parkinson’s disease, more than any charity in the world. Fox Foundation funds have gone to PD research at Johns Hopkins, and he believes that relationship will continue. “It stands to reason,” he says, “that we would have a deep and entrenched relationship with Johns Hopkins because of its research enterprise.”