The first neurologist to examine Dallas actress Sherry Jo Ward last year dismissed her with advice to “Google 'psychiatrist.'” The second neurologist was baffled by her symptoms: excruciating headaches, sudden muscle cramps, back and neck pain, numbness in her arms and legs. Tests were ordered for multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and hepatitis. All came back negative.
Whatever was going on had come on suddenly. At 40, Sherry says, she was healthy and active, keeping up with her sons (now 6 and 10) and performing onstage in demanding roles. (She had played the lead in WaterTower Theatre’s production of August: Osage County.)
“I never had any vices,” she says, “or did anything to abuse my health.”
Throughout late 2014 and early 2015, however, Sherry was getting more and more unsteady. “I’d be walking the dog and my arms would go numb,” she recalls. “I had twitches and tremors, vision problems. I was falling a lot. But the MRI came back showing nothing wrong.”
Sherry and her husband, playwright and drama teacher Thomas Ward, had recently moved back to Dallas from Minnesota, where Sherry worked at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company. In good weather up there, she rode her bike five miles to the job she recalls as “stressful and demanding.”
Her new position in marketing for Dallas Children’s Theater (Thomas teaches elementary school in Keller) was “perfect,” Sherry says. “I couldn’t dream of a better environment. I could feel stress rolling off of me.”
But her health problems persisted. She fell at work and again outside her home. Her legs, she says, would feel as if they were filling with wet cement.
Neurologist No. 3 nailed the diagnosis only because he’d seen one other patient with it: stiff person syndrome (SPS). The rare neurologic disorder begins with the symptoms Sherry experienced, followed by progressively more serious rigidity, spasms, and stiffness in the torso and limbs. Only about 300 people in this country have it.
There is no treatment, just physical therapy and pain management with prescription opiates and muscle relaxers. Sherry has joined the small community of SPS sufferers who communicate with each other through a Facebook group. (Throughout our interview, Sherry, nestled into the corner of a soft brown sofa, massages her left leg, which she says is in constant pain.)
“When I finally had that one doctor look at me and say, 'You are not crazy,' I just started weeping,” she says. “I’ve found that it’s not uncommon among people with this disorder to be told that it’s all in your head.
“I was lucky that it only took three doctors. It takes an average of seven years to get a correct diagnosis and only after 13 or 14 neurologists.”
In the months since her diagnosis, there have been “good days and bad days,” she says. Sherry pulls up her shirt to show a thick black “X” inked onto the square inch of her lower back she calls her “don’t-touch-Mommy spot.” The slightest touch triggers blinding pain from inflamed nerves, she says. She can no longer walk without a cane and relies on a wheeled seat she can also push as a walker when she’s standing.
The Wards moved out of their three-story townhouse and into a more navigable one-level, ranch-style home in Fort Worth. Sherry gave up driving and quit her job at DCT. But she hasn’t quit acting.
Last year she starred in the critically praised Precious Little, an Echo Theatre production at the Bath House Cultural Center. She used her cane for the role, and director Kelsey Leigh Ervi made sure there were “resting spots” for her all over the stage.
Thomas Ward also writes good roles for his wife. They co-starred together in his two-person, one-act International Falls, which debuted at last year's Out of the Loop Festival and was revived at Fort Worth’s Stage West. The Wards will co-star again in Thomas’ latest play, I Love You Honey Bunny, at this year’s Out of the Loop, which begins February 25.
Sherry calls it a “caper comedy” about a couple who go on a crime spree because they’re so broke they can’t afford a date night. “I thought the idea of making a quick getaway with me on a walker was a really funny visual,” she says.
So far her ability to memorize lines hasn’t been affected. “Just my stamina,” she says. “I could still do voiceovers.”
One of the first people Sherry reached out to after her diagnosis was longtime Dallas theater director René Moreno, who has used a wheelchair since an accident in the 1990s. “One of the things René told me was 'Your dramatic life does not have to end because of this. You’ll find a way to make this play out dramatically.’
“I’m already taking notes,” she says. “But I would rather play it out as comedy.”
I Love You Honey Bunny starring Sherry Jo and Thomas Ward plays the Out of the Loop Theatre Festival at 7:30 pm, February 25; 7:30 pm, March 2; and 2 pm, March 5, in the Studio Theatre.