NEWARK, NJ - Tuesday night will be a rocking good time for fans of legendary singer Olivia Newton-John, those who attend the concert to support multiple sclerosis research, and for Livingston resident Lee Kushner, who is living with MS.
Kushner and her husband, Murray, are the founders of “Musical Moments for MS,” a benefit concert gala for multiple sclerosis. Now in its 10th year, the concert features big-name performers who take to the stage at the NJ PAC in Newark for an evening of entertainment that benefits MS research efforts.
Kushner was diagnosed in 1994 with MS, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). Symptoms vary, because the location and severity of each attack can be different. Kushner said she had a lot of flare-ups and, after interviewing a lot of doctors who specialize in MS, ended up under the care of Dr. Stuart Cook at UMDNJ.
“He started treating me, and I just fell in love with him,” Kushner said. “My husband’s family has raised a lot of funds for Jewish causes, and one day I asked Dr. Cook if he’d like me to raise some money for MS. He said that would be wonderful.”
Kusher talked it over with her husband, who suggested they do it, but with a happy, positive focus.
And that’s just what they’ve done. Over the years, Musical Moments has featured such illustrious pipes as Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler, Gladys Knight, Donna Summer, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Loggins, Bernadette Peters, Frankie Valli, and Broadway star Idina Menzel (“Wicked”).
The Kushners have raised close to $14 million, and all of it has gone to MS research. Kushner said Cook, whom she said is the pre-eminent MS doctor in the world and is “very close to a cure,” has been very gracious about the fundraising.
This year’s concert, which will be at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the NJPAC in Newark, will feature some opening comments from the Kushners (Murray will be the emcee), Dr. Cook, an MS patient, and the Grammy Award-winning Newton-John.
“Murray and I are up on stage like Burns and Allen,” Kusher joked. “We never tell each other what we’re going to say. We’re very used to it and calm about the whole thing.” They’ve been married 30 years and have four children and four grandchildren.
Kushner, an artist, first realized something was wrong when she started having trouble distinguishing colors and it seemed everything was getting darker. She also had terrible vertigo. She was first diagnosed with Lyme Disease, but then lost feeling on her entire left side, and Bells Palsy on the left side of her face. After intravenous steroids (“which were horrendous”) and intramuscular shots of Avonex (which she developed an allergy to) she started having seizures in one eye.
Finally, Cook took her off everything, and she reports she’s been fine for the past 14 years.
“I work out, I have a very positive attitude,” she said. “To this day, my kids think I’m faking it. I’m honestly very lucky that I have this type of MS. Mine isn’t the progressive type, it’s the coming and going type.”
Bonnie Bardinas, communications director of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NJNMSS), said the concert provides a big fundraising boost.
“In New Jersey alone there are 13,000 people affected by MS,” Bardinas said. “We provide programs and services to patients, their caregivers, and their families.” The fundraising aspect pays for such programs, as well as MS research.
“We have support services, support groups, and education programs,” Bardinas explained, adding that when people are newly diagnosed, they generally don’t know what to expect. The NJNMSS has an equipment loan program, and runs physical health programs at their five centers throughout New Jersey.
“Those are the kinds of things Musical Moments supports,” she said.
When the event was new, Kushner said the evening was just overwhelming.
“I wound up in sneakers on stage,” she said. “I couldn’t wear heels. I couldn’t balance. And now I’m in heels, I’m up there, just trying to have a very joyous, uplifting night.”
Each year, the event honors three people, and this year’s honorees are Rick Lyon, executive vice president of commercial real estate for Capital One Bank; Leslie Donato, vice president and general manager of neurology and hematology at Bayer HealthCare; and John DeLuca, PhD, vice president of research at the Kessler Foundation. Other area dignitaries, including Governor Chris Christie, also will be in attendance.
Newton-John has sold more than 100 million albums during her career and has received four Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, and numerous Country Music, American Music and People’s Choice Awards. She has had 10 number one hits including the 80s anthem “Physical,” and more than 15 top 10 singles. In 1978, her co-starring role in “Grease” catapulted her into super-stardom with a soundtrack of hits, including "You’re The One That I Want," "Summer Nights," and "Hopelessly Devoted To You." To date, “Grease” remains the most successful movie musical in history. In November, she released the CD “This Christmas” with her “Grease” co-star John Travolta, their first reunion in more than 30 years.
“We approach this very joyously,” Kushner said. “We hope and pray we can fill a lot of the seats.”
For tickets, visit www.njpac.org or call 1-888-GO-NJPAC.