For a recent interview, Litchfield resident Karen Kopins Shaw, actress, model and former Miss Connecticut (1977) was wearing a beautiful beaded top, sleek Capri pants and shoes to die for, looking every inch the star that she is.
Among her television credits are appearances on "Dallas," "Designing Women" and "Perry Mason," and Mrs. Shaw's film credits include "Troop Beverly Hills" with Shelley Long and "Once Bitten" with Jim Carrey.
When asked if Mrs. Shaw dresses this way every day, a friend of hers who was present smiled and acknowledged that she looks "pretty glamorous when she goes to pick up her children at school."
While most Hollywood types are eager for publicity, Mrs. Shaw was reluctant to talk about herself, for a couple of reasons.
In addition to her television and film credits, Mrs. Shaw, who has more than 250 commercials under her belt as well as print ads for Oil of Olay, the Gap, Clarion Cosmetics and Westinghouse, has put her former life on hold, these days acting and modeling only on a special-exception basis.
"I'd much rather be with my family," she said.
But in addition to being a wife and mother, the actress has taken on a new starring role as a crusader against lyme disease.
Although the meeting had been arranged a few days in advance, the wife of residential contractor Mark Shaw and mother of their four children, ages 4, 8, 10, and 11, was again having second thoughts about sharing her thoughts publicly-even when she opened the front door to her home last Friday morning.
"Come in, and let's talk about this first," before deciding to proceed with the interview, she said.
Understandably a little media shy as a result of past experiences, Mrs. Shaw decided to proceed after her regal German shepherd, Tasha, a rescue dog, a tiny white Maltese appropriately named Fluffy and Sneakers, a shiny black cat, all gave a "paws up" to the meeting by planting themselves at the feet of the visitor to Rye House, the fairy-tale-like estate where Mrs. Shaw and her family live.
The actress admitted that she is conflicted about using her celebrity to bring awareness to lyme disease, an issue that has touched several people she loves-as well as broken her heart on many occasions.
"I don't want to be just another actress with a cause," said Mrs. Shaw during an initial conversation a few weeks ago. But she need not worry. Her kindness and sincerity come through loud and clear.
Because of her concern about appearing to be self-promoting, Mrs. Shaw had been going back and forth for several weeks-until she finally decided to publicly share her personal experiences with lyme disease as well as her work as an activist in that area.
During a phone interview, Dr. Gregory Bach of Philadelphia, one of the nation's foremost experts on lyme disease and an adviser to the U.S. Congress on tick-borne diseases, called Mrs. Shaw "my little guardian angel."
"It is people like her who make a difference," he said, explaining that he is grateful Mrs. Shaw is calling attention to the issue. He is currently working to raise $3.5 million to open an international research and treatment hospital in Pennsylvania for tick-borne diseases-the first of its kind-that will serve people and animals. "The animals have been short-changed," he said. The hospital is scheduled for completion within two years.
Mrs. Shaw plans to collect donations at a symposium on lyme disease that she has arranged to take place May 10 at New Milford High School. Although the symposium, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., is free and open to medical professionals as well as to the general public, she hopes that people will generously give donations to help with the construction of Dr. Bach's hospital.
Twenty-two members of Mrs. Shaw's family have been afflicted with lyme disease at one time or another-including each of her four children, who, because they received proper treatment, are all doing extremely well. In fact, all four of the Shaw children are national snowboarding champions in their respective divisions.
Mrs. Shaw cautiously answered questions about her glamorous life, but the actress-who is as gracious as she is gorgeous-prefers to discuss the issue that is foremost on her mind these days, and offered a passionate plea to the medical community and the public to become better informed about lyme disease and its ramifications. Hearing what she has to say requires taking the time, which is not difficult to do while stretching out on her settee, sipping coffee and nibbling on European pastries-cut in half so that you can sample a little bit of each flavor without feeling too guilty.
In fact, President George W. Bush had better have a clear schedule on May 21. Mrs. Shaw will be in Washington that day and hopes to speak with him about lyme disease and the issues surrounding it such as misdiagnoses and needed research dollars.
In an earlier letter that Mrs. Shaw sent to The Litchfield County Times, she called lyme disease a national epidemic and said, "My main goal is to educate physicians and others who are in contact with children. This disease mimics MS (Multiple Sclerosis), ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), Autism, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and fibromyalgia." She went on to explain that insurance companies have demonstrated an unwillingness to pay for antibiotic treatment, and she said that many people cannot afford the medication required to treat the disease.
While sitting in front of a fire in one of the Rye House's magnificent rooms on that cold, rainy morning last week-with Mrs. Shaw perched upon a facing settee, exhibiting the kind of perfect posture only seen in fashion models-it's easy to feel as if you were talking with a favorite sorority sister from college days. It is her substance, not her accoutrements, that draw one to Mrs. Shaw. Simply put, she is a really nice person who is very generous, and who does not take herself and her past achievements too seriously.
However, what she does take seriously is her work as an activist.
The catalyst of Mrs. Shaw's involvement as an advocate to bring greater awareness to issues related to lyme disease was her sister-in-law's illness. After receiving a diagnosis of MS, the woman visited 12 physicians and finally received another diagnosis that would change her life for the better: she was told that she had lyme.
"She knew my daughter had a problem," said Mrs. Shaw of her sister-in-law, who recommended that the Shaws have their daughter tested for the disease. The test came back positive, and at that point the couple decided to have all of their children tested-and every single child tested positive. "This is a national epidemic," said Mrs. Shaw, who added that there is new research to show that lyme disease can be sexually transmitted. "I believe my son got it from my breast milk," she said.
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