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Coelho shares his struggles

Epilepsy didn't stop former congressman

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Last Updated: May 15, 2005, 07:02:59 AM PDT

At 21, Tony Coelho was driving around Los Angeles without a license or car insurance, and he couldn't find a job.

He wasn't thrilled about breaking the law, but he lost his license because of his health. He wasn't happy about not having a job, either, especially being a graduate of Loyola Marymount University.

But in 1964, Coelho had just been diagnosed with epilepsy. The condition's stigma limited his abilities and opportunities.

"It was a real tough time," he said. "You feel everything you love has turned against you."

Coelho, a Merced County native who served in the House of Representatives, shared his story recently with the Catholic Professional Business Club of Merced.

Coelho worked his way through the ranks of the Democratic leadership, serving in the House from 1978 until resigning in 1989.

In 2000, he returned to the national political stage as general chairman of then-Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign. He said he left the campaign because of his health and only wants to play a minor role in the Democrats' next presidential campaign.

He usually travels from his home in Arlington, Va., to the Central Valley every three months, he said.

It might be difficult, but Coelho said he wants to tell his story to help other people with disabilities.

"It's still tough. The scar tissue is still there," Coelho said. "By talking about it, you can eliminate a lot of the fears and the stigma."

While in Washington, he authored the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he continues to work in support of the legislation. He will assume the chairmanship of the Epilepsy Foundation of America later this month.

If doors hadn't been closed to him because of his disability, Coelho might have served the area in a different way. His diagnosis kept him out of the military during the Vietnam War and ended his hopes of becoming a Catholic priest.

The church at the time would not accept anyone into the priesthood with the disease because epilepsy was perceived to have demonic origins, Coelho said.

Epilepsy even strained his family relationships and left him suicidal, he said.

But a Jesuit priest and a legendary entertainer helped him find his way to a successful career in public service.

In 1964, the priest encouraged him to help others. He also introduced Coelho to Bob Hope. Coelho lived in Hope's home for about a year, where he received encouragement to work in government.

Decades later while meeting with Pope John Paul II the congressman had the courage to share his struggle with the pontiff.

Raylene Smith, whose 31-year-old granddaughter has multiple sclerosis and has been in a wheelchair since the age of 13, said she found Coelho's speech uplifting.

"I just wanted to thank you, because my granddaughter has MS and you have opened so many doors for us," Smith told Coelho.