Not surprisingly, comic actor Michael J. Fox told a lot of jokes during his keynote speech on the closing day of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference in Orlando, Fla.
He also tugged at many hearts.
Fox said one of the most popular urban legends on a website devoted to them was that there really was a hover board—the skateboard-like device that rides on a cushion of air on which Fox's character out-maneuvered bad guys in two of his three breakout “Back to the Future” movies.
The other popular legend involved Harrison Ford, Fox said, and the famous scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in which, Ford's character, Indiana Jones, when confronted by an angry sword-wielding Arab, pulls out a pistol and shoots him.
“They did that instead of the three-minute whip scene they had scheduled because Harrison Ford had diarrhea,” Fox said.
There is no hover board, of course. But the story about Ford?
“It turns out to be true,” Fox said.
Mostly, Fox told stories about himself, some were serious, some not.
About his father, a Canadian Army sergeant, Fox said, “He was a loving father, but he was a military man. I could describe him this way. If you were in trouble, he was the first person you want to call, but the last person you want to talk to.”
He spoke of his early fame, first the TV hit “Family Ties” and then “Back to the Future,” which made him an international celebrity. Being successful early “is like throwing Miracle-Gro on all your character defects,” he said.
But he also spoke about his diagnosis, at age 29, of Parkinson's disease, and being told, as a result, he had maybe 10 more years in his acting career. He sought fourth and fifth opinions, Fox said. His denial, he said, was like standing in the street with his feet in concrete.
“I know the bus was coming. I could hear it. I could feel its vibration, but it wasn't there yet,” he said. And then, after experiencing the five stages of grief, he discovered that “my happiness was growing in the proportion to my acceptance.”
Fox also spoke of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which finds and funds risky but potentially game-changing research initiatives.
“It's all about acceptance,” he said. “It's distinct from resignation. I accept that I have Parkinson's, but I'm not resigned to it. There's more out there than just that. I know how to deal with that and my family knows how to deal with it, and so I don't focus on it. It's just like I have two legs and two arms and a head, and I have Parkinson's. There is much more going on.”
“When I see the opportunities opening up to me and see amazing people and be a park of amazing work, I end up being happier than I ever imagined,” he said.
Fox received three standing ovations, and HIMSS Board Vice Chairwoman Charlene Underwood handed the actor/activist a check from the organization for $5,000 for the foundation.
During the question-and-answer session following his address, several attendees trooped to the audience microphone to pay their own, personal tributes to the actor.
Elizabeth Sillaw, of Madison, Wis., a health IT lawyer whose husband is a Parkinson's disease researcher at the University of Wisconsin, lauded the work of Fox's foundation. Sillaw said organizations supporting medical research in other disease areas “are learning from that model.”
She also said she was on Capitol Hill 10 years ago and saw Fox “walking down the halls, lobbying.”
“Thank you for your patience,” she said. “You're working so hard and it's getting somewhere.”