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Jill Porter: No greater love, or fight

IT HAD BEEN 20 years since her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Kristin Farra wanted to do something to mark the anniversary.

Holding fundraiser check are (from left) Dr. Steven Galetta, Dr. LauraBalcer, Linda Farra and her daughter, Kristin.
Holding fundraiser check are (from left) Dr. Steven Galetta, Dr. LauraBalcer, Linda Farra and her daughter, Kristin.Read more

IT HAD BEEN 20 years since her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Kristin Farra wanted to do something to mark the anniversary.

A debilitating disease might be an odd thing to commemorate. But her mother had been so unbowed by the diagnosis - getting advanced academic degrees and resisting exhaustion to be there for her children - that Kristin wanted to honor her.

Kristin knew that a fancy dinner or extravagant gift would be meaningless to the woman whose life mission was helping others.

(When Kristin was a child, her father gave her mother every Saturday off, and she did volunteer work rather than go shopping or indulge herself at a salon.)

"I knew she'd want to give something rather than get something," Kristin said.

So, Kristin decided to raise money for MS research at the University of Pennsylvania, where her mother, Linda, is a patient.

She held a fundraiser one night last month at McCrossen's Tavern, the cozy restaurant-bar at 20th near Spring Garden where she's the manager. She hoped, at best, to raise $5,000.

Instead, in the course of seven hours, Kristin raised an astonishing $10,500.

"I'm overwhelmed with the outpouring of support," said Dr. Laura Balcer, chief of the MS division in Penn's neurology department, as she perched on a bar stool at McCrossen's.

Linda Farra was in her 30s when she had her first episode of MS.

She was driving to her in-laws' house, with her two children in the car, when "I couldn't speak properly and my memory was all off."

When she got to the house, she couldn't remember her father-in-law's name; it's Robert - the same as her husband's.

She was devastated when she was diagnosed.

"I can remember one time I laid down in bed and Bob was talking to me and I cried, 'What am I going to do? What am I going to do?' "

What she did was remarkable. She made a list of everything she wanted to accomplish before the disease - which is episodic in the beginning - overtook her.

And she did them.

She got her master's degree from Bryn Mawr, her Ph.D. from Penn, became a licensed psychotherapist and opened a private practice.

"Linda is incredibly courageous," said Dr. Steven Galetta, her treating physician.

"She's a vibrant go-getter and she battles really hard with this disorder."

Linda also stayed involved in her children's lives - she also has a son, Jesse, 28 - despite escalating pain and exhaustion.

"If I had a late-night sporting event, she and my dad would come separately," Kristin recalled. "She'd stay through halftime and then have to leave."

Linda, now 58, who lives with her husband in Pottstown, looks remarkably healthy, with no external evidence of her illness.

But it became clear in 2006 that it had taken its toll.

Her fatigue worsened. The iconic memory that enabled Linda to remember everything about her patients and their families failed.

Rather than shortchange her patients, Linda closed her practice.

"That was a struggle for her," Kristin said.

"That was the first time she admitted the disease would have a profound affect on her life."

Kristin, 25, has worked off and on through college and between jobs at McCrossen's Tavern.

The charming, intimate place, with its "Cheers" ambience, was always a refuge for her.

"It's always a place where, if you feel unhappy, you can go there and someone will cheer you up," she said.

The Temple business school grad quit her corporate human-resources job to become the manager at McCrossen's last year.

And she got enthusiastic support from owners Michael Rodolico and Joyce and Jay Brennan (Rodolico's sister and brother-in-law) for the fundraiser held on Nov. 11, Veteran's Day.

The owners donated $1,000 worth of liquor. Customers and employees donated luxury items for a silent auction - from a flat-screen TV to Eagles and Flyers tickets, from golf certificates at a private country club to a week at the Shore, from a diamond-sapphire ring to an Amish quilt, and more. There were chances and other specials, and the bar was jammed with well-wishers.

When the night was over, MS research at Penn - which, like all medical research, is always struggling for money (see sidebar) - was richer by $10,500.

"I was absolutely elated and wanted to cry out of joy," Kristin said.

Dr. Galetta, Linda's doctor, was impressed both with the money raised and the devotion between mother and daughter.

MS can have a profoundly negative affect on family dynamics, he said.

"It was so refreshing to see a family rally round."

"I was so touched she'd do that for me," Linda said of Kristin.

"She's just a blessing to everyone around her."

Linda stood behind the mock-up check as it was presented to Drs. Galetta and Balcer - and kissed Kristin on the cheek.

"Can you tell I'm proud of her?" she grinned.

And with very good reason. *

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