TAMPA — Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern’s revelation this week that she has multiple sclerosis took most of her counterparts in Old City Hall by surprise.
“It wasn’t something that she ever mentioned,” Councilman Mike Suarez said Friday.
Mulhern, 54, revealed that she has been living with MS for years when she announced Thursday she is dropping her campaign for the District 7 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.
Mulhern cannot seek re-election to the city council because she has reacher her term limit. She was the lone Democrat running against incumbent Republican County Commissioner Al Higginbotham for the open at-large seat being vacated by Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe.
Democrat April Griffin withdrew from the race several weeks ago.
In an interview Friday, Mulhern said her variety of mild, recurring MS was interfering with her ability to sustain the energy needed to mount a countywide campaign.
“Fatigue is my biggest problem,” Mulhern said. “The amount of energy I have at this time is not enough to do the job.”
Immunologist Bruce Bebo, associate vice president for discovery research at the National MS Society, said Mulhern’s experience is a common one.
“Fatigue is a real symptom and it’s a hard one to communicate to other people,” Bebo said. “I’ve heard people describe it as trying to run underwater.”
Multiple sclerosis results from the immune system attacking the material that insulates nerves in the body. The resulting damage causes electrical impulses traveling along those nerves to short-circuit, Bebo said.
Depending on which nerves are attacked, MS can manifest as blindness, limited ability to walk or many other symptoms. Fatigue can result as those attacks build up in the body, Bebo said.
People with Mulhern’s type of relapsing MS can live long, full lives if they manage their condition with medication, Bebo said.
It’s also increasingly common for people in the public eye to speak about living with MS, Bebo said. Ann Romney, wife of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, revealed she has MS during her husband’s campaign.
Mulhern, who is nearing the end of her second term on Tampa City Council, said Friday she has had MS for 25 years. That was news to most of her council colleagues, who said she had never shared her health issues with them.
She also never discussed it during her two campaigns for citywide office.
Did she deliberately keep her MS out of public view to avoid being stigmatized?
“I was not intentionally keeping my condition ‘secret.’ I was just doing my job and having a private life which did not affect my work,” Mulhern said in an email. “The fact that people did not know I suffer from MS is because it has not affected my public service.”
Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin said she has know about Mulhern’s MS for about 10 years.
“She didn’t exploit it. She didn’t hide it,” Capin said. “It was just something very personal, the way people’s health issues are.”
The MS revelation answered a lot of questions for Mulhern’s colleagues.
“I had sort of sensed that she might have some health issues,” Councilman Harry Cohen said. “I didn’t see her out at events where a candidate would normally be.”
Mulhern so far has raised about $40,000 for her campaign. Higginbotham has nearly four times as much.
Suarez said raising money for a political campaign can be a heavy lift even for people without chronic health problems.
“Working your regular job, working your city council job and raising money can be really tough,” he said.