Michael Dean Perry knows the day is coming when his good-natured, gap-toothed older brother nicknamed "The Fridge" will be back to his old, affable self.
But that will take some time and Aiken native William Perry understands that, Michael Dean said. William, the former NFL defensive lineman famous for his smile and 360-pound size, spent more than a month at Aiken Regional Medical Center this spring, suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease where the body's immune system attacks its peripheral nerves.
Now each day Michael Dean visits William at the Carolinas Rehabilitation near Charlotte, N.C.,- sometimes to encourage him and sometimes to participate in his lengthy recovery.
"Baby steps I call them," he said Wednesday, adding that William still was not up to granting interviews. "But we can see improvement."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, Guillain-Barre syndrome causes "... the loss of reflexes ... and paralysis of respiratory muscles also can occur. A small proportion of patients die, and 20 percent of hospitalized patients can have prolonged disability."
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says on its Web site that there's no known cure for Guillain-Barre.
Perry's Chicago Bears coach, Mike Ditka, saw something wrong in February when his former lineman showed up for an autograph session at Rosemont, Ill. Perry needed a wheelchair to get around and was 150 pounds lighter than when Ditka last saw him, said Ken Valdiserri , the Bears spokesman during Perry's time in Chicago and now president of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.
Perry "did not look very good," Valdiserri said.
Charlie Timmerman, a friend of Perry's from Aiken, says Perry had been hospitalized before. This time, though, doctors thought it was much more serious.
In April, one of Perry's brothers, Daryl, stopped in to check on him and found his famous sibling weak and dehydrated. William was listed in serious condition when he was taken to the hospital, where he remained.
Michael Dean says his brother, always outgoing and friendly, was reticent to complain or ask for help. As a former athlete, Michael Dean said it's difficult to give in to the idea you are no longer invincible and perhaps that's what kept the 46-year-old William from seeking treatment sooner.
Perry, a rookie lineman, rose to stardom during the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl run. Perry was on TV screens everywhere, a smiling, gap-toothed pitchman for McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
He made a guest appearance on the hit television show, The A-Team.
Perry played 10 NFL seasons before retiring.
"Someone of his stature, you always think of your vitality," said Michael Dean, who followed William to the NFL and became a six-time Pro Bowler with 61 sacks for Cleveland and Denver. "This opens your eyes."
Perry's doctors in Aiken saw his condition improve enough to release him in late May.
Valdiserri said Ditka and others in the Gridiron Greats organization attempted to bring Perry to Northwestern University's Memorial Hospital. However, it would've cost Perry about $350,000 for 8 to 12 weeks of necessary therapy.
Valdiserri says Northwestern helped secure a place for Perry at Carolinas Rehabilitation - at no cost, Valdiserri says - where Michael Dean and sister, Patsy, can monitor their brother and cajole him into sticking with his rehab.
William must undergo six to seven hours of speech and physical therapy each day to improve his deteriorated motor skills, Michael Dean says.
HOW TO HELP
To help offset the costs of his treatment, a fund has been set up to collect donations for William Perry.
"He's gaining weight, doing good," said Charlie Timmerman, an Aiken veterinarian who helped set up the fund. "He still has a long way to go."
To donate, supporters can:
- Visit www.fridgefund.homestead.com
- Call (803) 215-1116
- Stop by Southern Bank & Trust branches in Aiken and North Augusta.