Tim Conway starred on television for 40 years, where he played Ensign Parker on McHale’s Navy for four years, created an array of comic characters on The Carol Burnett Show for 11 years, and hosted his own variety show for two years. He received six Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and TV Land’s Legend Award, and was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.
In 2009 he suffered from dizziness, nausea and difficulty walking and was diagnosed with Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), a condition in which the fluid in and around the brain accumulates in and crushes the brain. He had surgery to put a shunt into his brain to allow the fluid to drain into his spinal cord. This helped him considerably and allowed him to return to show business temporarily in 2011, but over time, he developed progressive dementia. In 2015, he was treated with a new type of valve to drain the fluid from his brain and his dizziness, nausea and walking problems improved. The symptoms worsened in 2018 and he had additional brain surgery in September 2018, but he remained bedridden with a diagnosis of dementia and required 24-hours-a-day medical care. He died on May 14, 2019 at age 85, with the cause of death given as complications of NPH.
His Path to Fame
Conway was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933 to an Irish immigrant father who groomed polo ponies for a living and a mother who came from Romania. He majored in television and radio at Bowling Green State University and then went into the Army from 1956 to 1958. He worked on various television jobs and in 1962 he became a regular on the Steve Allen Show. From 1962 to 2012, he appeared in more than 20 television shows and movies. He first gained fame as the incompetent Ensign Charles Parker on a World War II PT boat, with Ernest Borgnine in McHale’s Navy. He made frequent guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show starting in 1967, earned a regular spot on the show in 1975 and stayed with the show until it closed in 1978. After that he was given his own show that lasted for two years. He worked regularly on series such as Coach and 30Rock, voiced roles on SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons and many others, and appeared in several successful movies.
He was married to Mary Anne Dalton from 1961 until 1978 and had six children, including Tim Conway, Jr., who is a Los Angeles radio host. In 1984 he married Charlene Fusco, and remained with her until his death.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Your brain sits in your skull surrounded by fluid on all sides and has lakes of fluid called ventricles inside your brain. The fluid is continuously produced in the brain by a group of cells called the choroid plexus, and it travels through the ventricles and is eventually absorbed through veins in the brain and spinal cord. When a person develops any symptoms affecting the brain, doctors order an MRI. If the MRI shows enlarged ventricles, it means that there is excess brain fluid that is caused by something damaging the brain to make it smaller so the fluid replaces the lost brain tissue, or the excess fluid is enlarging the ventricles so they press on the brain to damage it and make it smaller. When there is no obvious cause of the enlarged ventricles, such as a tumor, infection, or Alzheimer’s disease, doctors diagnose Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH). Most of the time, doctors do not find an obstruction of the spinal fluid flow, so they have no idea what is causing the increased buildup of fluid in the brain. People with NPH often eventually suffer walking difficulties, dementia, and/or impaired bladder control.
Who Develops Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus?
NPH is one of the few causes of dementia that may be controlled or reversed with proper treatment. It can be caused by bleeding into the brain, trauma, infections, tumors, or complications from surgery, but most of the time, there is no known cause. More than 700,000 North Americans have NPH and it becomes more common with aging. Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of the time, doctors fail to make the correct diagnosis (Hydrocephalus Association, www.hydroassoc.org), and they misdiagnose their patients as suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or dementia, or they tell their patients that they are “just suffering from aging”. The majority of people with NPH develop irreversible dementia and progressive brain damage because they fail to receive the correct treatment.
Lessons from Tim Conway’s Life and Death
Any abnormal symptom that can possibly be caused by brain damage should be evaluated with an MRI. If the MRI shows grossly enlarged ventricles in the brain, the doctor has to decide whether this is due to loss of brain tissue from some other cause such as Alzheimer’s disease, a tumor or infection. If a person with symptoms that can be caused by damage to the brain has enlarged ventricles and no evident cause, doctors should consider the diagnosis of NPH, which can be treated with a tube inserted into the skull to drain spinal fluid from the brain to the spinal canal.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com