Pushed into an early retirement at age 51, health care executive and workaholic Bill MacNally wrestled with what he called the “gift of time.”
Raised by a pair of do-gooder parents, he said that taking up table tennis was not an option.
MacNally decided instead to use his expertise in health care to help the National Multiple Sclerosis Society secure research dollars and lobby for its cause. The Blaine man attended dozens of MS walks, runs and fundraisers across Minnesota, acting as an ambassador and rallying support.
And he’s done it all while managing his own multiple sclerosis diagnosis, which now requires him to use leg braces and a cane.
As a result, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has named MacNally, 65, its National Volunteer of the Year, the highest honor bestowed by the nonprofit.
MacNally, a former senior vice president of Allina Health, received the award at the society’s National Leadership Conference in November.
“His passion and dedication is evident in everything he does,” said Holly Anderson, president of the society’s Upper Midwest chapter. “There is no doubt that Bill’s contagious enthusiasm has surely brought us closer to a world free of the disease.”
MacNally grew up in a family that prioritized charity work, and he followed that tradition in his own life. But it was his own diagnosis in his 40s that connected him with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
It started with a numb feeling in his shoulder while visiting his parents in Florida in 1993. He thought he’d slept in an awkward position, but then the numbness traveled down his body.
Doctors diagnosed him soon afterward. MacNally quickly shared the news with his colleagues at Allina Hospitals & Clinics, who had already witnessed his struggle with the symptoms.
“I couldn’t hide it,” McNally said. “I wasn’t sure I would have a job … I was thinking I would end up in a wheelchair. I didn’t want my kids to remember me that way.”
With multiple sclerosis, the body’s immune system attacks parts of the central nervous system. The damage distorts or interrupts nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of symptoms that include numbness, difficulty walking, involuntary muscle spasms and cognitive changes affecting memory and learning.
“We believe it’s environmental and we believe it has a genetic component,” said MacNally.
At the time of his diagnosis, there were no drugs to directly treat his form multiple sclerosis. Now there are more than a dozen, he said.
MacNally continued to work, but he approached his career and family life differently. He let go of the reins at the office, delegated more tasks and shed his suit and tie for more casual business attire.
He made his time off count, planning elaborate family vacations for his wife, Janet, and their two kids.
Once he retired, he brought that renewed sense of life and purpose to his philanthropy work.
“I have the gift of time. I’d better use it,” MacNally told himself.
As a volunteer, MacNally used his health care experience to guide the merger of the North Central and Minnesota Multiple Sclerosis Society chapters. The larger organization now serves Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.
He influenced multiple sclerosis research funding decisions while serving on the national Research Program Advisory Council and the Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program in Washington, D.C.
He also pushed for legislation to reduce prescription drug co-payments, and negotiated with health plans to better meet the needs of people with multiple sclerosis. MacNally said government health plans often denied or limited coverage for physical therapy for multiple sclerosis patients because it didn’t lead to improvement or healing.
“If you have MS, you just want to maintain where you are at,” MacNally said.