TV viewers know her as the charming and funny co-host of ABC's The View, who frequently jokes about her husband, whom the audience has never seen. But behind the scenes Meredith Vieira's life is very different from her TV world of celebrity interviews and beauty makeovers.
For 30 years her husband, Richard Cohen, a respected news producer and writer, has lived with multiple sclerosis. Now he has written an inspiring account of that battle in his new book, Blindsided.
"I've pretty much made fun of him all the time," she says. "Because that's the kind of relationship we have. We poke fun of each other." The book is a brutally honest and raw portrait of their family's refusal to give into the ravages of chronic illness. Above all, it is a love story about surviving, and rising above fear and anger.
MS has taken its toll on Cohen. He is legally blind and the disease has also attacked his vocal cords, arms and legs. Mysterious and unpredictable, MS is a neurological disease that affects an estimated 400,000 Americans, rarely fatal, but it wreaks havoc on the body's central nervous system and can cause blindness, loss of balance, slurred speech, tremors, and paralysis. There is no cure and patients never know where it will strike next.
Cohen's first glimpse of the storm ahead came when he was 19 years old. His father, a doctor, revealed to him the family secret that he and Cohen's grandmother had MS. A few years later, Cohen was working as a news researcher when suddenly he became disoriented, spilling coffee, slipping on the street, his leg going numb. When he was 25 he learned he had MS.
"There's an expression "diagnose and adios," and "see ya" because really there were no treatments of any kind," says Cohen. For years he worked as a producer at CBS keeping his diagnosis a secret. "I lied to get the job," he says. I faked my way through the company physical … I was scared to death because by now I was somewhat blind in both eyes. "
He eventually told his bosses and then pressed on covering wars and politics. The dating front was a different story. He says that some women fled for the nearest exit when he told them his secret. But not Meredith Vieira.
When he met Vieira in the early '80s, except for his eyesight Cohen's MS was barely noticeable. He was still young and athletic. On their second date, he told Vieira about his condition.
"He asked me 'What does MS mean to you?" Vieira says. "And I said 'It's a magazine. MS magazine.' The worst that I thought was that he could lose his sight. And I was OK with that."
The couple married and when they decided to have children they underwent genetic testing and were assured that Cohen's condition was not hereditary. "Sometimes it's a leap of faith, says Vieira. "I fell in love with this guy with MS … This man's an incredible guy. So anybody that I produce with him, I think would be pretty cool. That was my feeling."
'I Felt Like a Fourth Child'
When Vieira became pregnant with their second son Gabe things got worse. CBS demanded that she work full time. Instead, she left 60 Minutes. It was a crossroad. And Vieira chose family over career. In the early '90s, the Cohens moved with their three children Ben, Gabe and Lily, to the New York suburbs. There, as his MS began to worsen, Cohen says he felt helpless, like a fourth child.
"I used to play ball, touch football, or shoot baskets. My kids have never seen me do that? they've only known me as having limitations," Cohen says. "I go to Ben's soccer games. And [he] probably doesn't even stop to think that I can't see him take a goal. But you know what? I think kids need you to be there for them. "
On a horrifying day in 1992, Cohen's illness almost killed his son Ben, then 4, as the two stood on a train platform. When the train pulled in father and son stepped on board. Then Ben said to his father you dropped your ID card on the platform and when Cohen went to pick it up his son followed him off the train.
He describes the day." This happened in an instant. I reached up, in the, in sort of a universal language of don't.I guess I accidentally pushed him back, without realizing it, And, to my horror, He went down, between the train and the platform on the tracks."
Vieira, who wasn't at the train station, found out later what had happened to her son. "I didn't know what had happened. .. Richard gets out of the car and I can see his shoulders, he's crying. And I go up to him and I say 'What … What happened? What happened?' " He said, 'We almost lost Ben. I almost killed Ben.' "
Cohen says that from that day on the joy of being with his children was tempered with fear. "I was scared," he says. "I was scared to death, a lot of times."
They kept MS a secret from their children … Until the night Cohen fell down the steps and Ben, the oldest son, started asking questions.
"He said, 'Is it going to happen to me?' says Cohen. "And I said "I don't know. I wasn't going to sit there and lie to him … but of course it could happen to him. "
The Cohens are an open family where everything is on the table. Three generations say they have come to terms with MS as a fact of life, including the children and their grandfather Dr. Ben Cohen who has lived with MS for 65 years.
"I can't be angry," says Dr. Cohen. "I didn't to it to myself. It's there and the world goes on. "
Although the children are healthy, Vieira can't help worrying about them. "You know as they get bigger, if one of my kids stumbles, I think about it," she says. "And if something were to happen to one of the kids, I don't know how I would feel having you know, given birth to them, how can you not?"
Today, even with his progressively worsening MS, Cohen, at age 55, is a fighter. Almost daily he works out in the gym. To retard the progress of his disease, he gives himself frequent shots of interferon. Every morning, he and Meredith take the kids to school; she on her way to The View, he to his office.
And he insists on taking subways instead of cabs, stairs instead of elevators, which worries Vieira. "I hate it … Like I think he sometimes puts his life in danger and it worries me." And although she doesn't like it she can understand why her husband takes these risks.
'Denial Can Keep You Going'
"It makes him feel like 'I'm normal', you know, 'I'm like everybody else.' "
Cohen concurs, "Let me tell you something. Denial is little understood. Denial is ammunition to keep going."
But then came the day when denial was not enough. On top of his MS, Cohen was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999. Several operations followed and he went into remission. But the cancer came back, this time with serious repercussions. Cohen had to have an ileostomy or bag temporarily attached to contain his bodily waste.
"He went into himself like I've never seen," recalls Vieira. "I think he was a much angrier man. That second surgery carried with it a lot of stuff afterwards, the recovery period. He had to have a bag … He felt humiliated."
"Meredith finally said, you're becoming a monster,' " remembers Cohen.
The children also made it clear how they felt and it wasn't pretty. Ben told his father he wanted to kick him and get away from him. "And it was like getting hit with a baseball bat in the solarplexes," he says. But I really did take it to heart."
Cohen went into remission again but he says this time he changed for the better. He became more active, attending events, lecturing to journalism students at Columbia University, working for the MS Society and writing very personal articles in the New York Times about coping with MS and cancer.
Vieira and Cohen say that even after so many hardships, their marriage remains solid. They say their ability to look at things with a sense of humor keeps them grounded. "Humor's essential, she says. "Even at the worst, right after the second colon cancer, we always found something to laugh about. I would kid him about. While you were in the hospital, I did purchase a black dress, just in case … We just made jokes. And we still do. It's what gets you through."
Vieira says the toughest part of her husband's illness is not knowing what's next. "That's pretty tough," she says. "It's kind of a rotten deal, a lot of it. And then to have colon cancer twice. He's a pain in the neck," she laughs.
For the Cohens illness is "a family affair." But Meredith says that her husband's grace and humor in the face of adversity has taught their children profound lessons about life. "Well, I think that he's the greatest teacher they'll ever have," she marvels. "If they don't already know it, they will. He's teaching them compassion and strength and dignity, bravery."