First Person / A message to Walter: If you haven't checked up on your Tourette's lately, please do

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"Man With Tourette's Syndrome Banned From Flight," the Internet headline read. According to the article, a pilot, alarmed by the man's repetitive use of the word bomb, would not let him board the plane.

Tourette's syndrome, with its jarring physical and verbal tics that sufferers cannot control ... I hadn't thought about it for years, not since Ann Landers' columns had faded from the daily papers. Suddenly now, reading the Web story, I thought about Walter (not his real name). What had become of him?

Ann Landers had brought Tourette's syndrome to my attention more than 35 years ago. Along with the advice she passed out to those who sought commonsense solutions to their problems, Ann addressed other, more topical issues. She explained Tourette's syndrome, identifying its characteristics, to a readership that probably had never heard of it.

When Walter entered my fifth-grade classroom that September morning after Labor Day many years ago, I was informed.

Walter was a shy kid, friendly and pleasant, but quiet. He also had Tourette's syndrome. I was sure of it. I noticed the blinking eyes first, rapid and continuous. I looked for other signs -- the rabbit twitch of his nose, the grimace of his mouth, the flick, flick, flick of his fingers. As I walked up and down the rows of seats, I heard the soft clearing of his throat, a repetitive sound symptomatic of Tourette's.

I'd learned a lot since that Ann Landers column. I was armed with knowledge, but what could I really do to help Walter?

I thought about talking to the school nurse, even the social worker. However, Tourette's was not a life-and-death medical issue and Walter was not a discipline problem. I felt his issues would get shuffled to the bottom of busy caseloads.

Watching Walter suffer day after day, catching undercurrents of the mockery foisted on him by classmates who didn't understand, I decided the moment had come. I called his primary caregiver -- his grandmother -- in for a conference.

A few pleasantries were exchanged and we got to the business of Walter. Yes, she agreed, she had noticed his symptoms. She'd asked him to stop, but he wouldn't.

He couldn't control his tics, I told her. He needed medical help, a doctor who specialized in treating his condition.

She didn't know anyone like that, couldn't get him there anyhow.

I did, and I could.

On her behalf I made an appointment with a specialist, and on a school vacation day I picked up Walter and his grandmother and took them to Oakland.

Walter was officially diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome that same day. The doctor prescribed medication, explained that the dosage would have to be monitored and scheduled a follow-up appointment.

I wish I could say that Walter's story came to a happily-ever-after ending. I don't know all the details, just what I was able to piece together.

His grandmother did keep the follow-up appointment, and the doctor adjusted the dosage. Not enough though. I watched as Walter, obviously over-medicated, nodded off in class. When I asked him if he had seen the doctor again, he shook his head no.

When I contacted his grandmother, she told me she'd called the doctor's office several times. No one returned her calls to schedule another visit. She was taking Walter off the medicine. He didn't need it. He had no symptoms at home. They were just happening at school.

After a bit of detective work, I discovered that the doctor had taken ill. He would not be returning to work. Another doctor specializing in Tourette's was on his way.

But it was too late for Walter. When I called his grandmother to explain, to convince her to see the new doctor, she refused.

On fifth-grade graduation day, I called Walter aside. "You have Tourette's syndrome," I told him. "When you're old enough to take care of yourself, call this number." I printed out the words TOURETTE'S SYNDROME on a piece of paper, along with the doctor's phone number, and handed it to him. Then I wished him good luck.

I never heard from Walter again and after a while he slipped from my memory. Until now. Until a headline jolted me back in time.

I hope, Walter, that you are reading this article, and that you, a grown man now, can remember back to fifth grade. I hope you called that number and now have peace of mind and body. But if you didn't, it's not too late. More doctors are aware of Tourette's syndrome today than ever before. Call your doctor. Or contact the national Tourette Syndrome Association ( Or check in with the Pennsylvania Tourette Syndrome Alliance (

I wish you the best, Walter.


Arlene Morris-Lipsman is a freelance writer and retired schoolteacher who lives in Squirrel Hill (


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