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Ex-Senate leader Basnight has Lou Gehrig's disease

Posted February 13, 2012 12:50 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2012 6:34 p.m. EST

— Marc Basnight, the most powerful state senator for most of the past two decades, has Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal degenerative illness.

Basnight, 64, retired from the state Senate a year ago, saying he was suffering from a disease that affected his balance and speech, which would hinder his ability to engage in floor debates. He said at the time that doctors hadn't yet identified the illness.

Neurologist Dr. Benjamin Brooks, who is treating Basnight at Carolinas Medical Center, said Monday it was a tough case to diagnose.

"He's seen many doctors, and I think he's evolved very slowly, fortunately," Brooks said.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease because it afflicted the former New York Yankees star, is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.

According to the National Institutes of Health, ALS causes the nerve cells to waste away or die, so they can no longer send messages to muscles. This eventually leads to muscle weakening, twitching and an inability to move the arms, legs and body. When the muscles in the chest area stop working, it becomes hard or impossible to breathe on one's own.

There is no known cure for the disease, which affects about five out of every 100,000 people worldwide.

Brooks said he expects Basnight's condition to continue moving slowly because it's a form of ALS that responds well to drug therapy. He's been treating it since 2010.

"One can't prognosticate perfectly in this situation, but he is stable in many respects of his function and has had only minor weakness in his fingers right now," Brooks said.

Basnight, a Dare County Democrat, served in the Senate for 26 years, including 18 as president pro tem, which gave him control over the movement of legislation in the chamber.

Former Sen. Tony Rand was Basnight's right-hand man for much of that time, and the two have been close friends for decades. Rand said he first noticed changes in Basnight several years ago.

"You could tell his voice started becoming a little different," he said. "(There was) no problem with his mental processes."

Basnight has been traveling with his fiancee and enjoying time with his family in Manteo, Rand said, noting that his old friend is handling the diagnosis well.

"This is a part of life, an unpleasant part, but one that he faces with determination and with humor and as he's viewed most things in his life," he said.

Sen. Phil Berger, who succeeded Basnight as president pro tem, said he was saddened to hear of his former colleague's diagnosis.

"I know Marc is a fighter, and I'm confident he will combat this illness with the energy and resolve he showed fighting for the people of North Carolina," said Berger, R-Rockingham.