The very first time Rocco Mangel heard the two words, “all I could think of was a wheelchair.”
Mangel is the celebrity owner and handsome face of Rocco’s Tacos, the incredibly successful chain of Mexican restaurants stretching from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach to Brooklyn. He’s the charismatic guy with the gleaming head who you’ll find striding across the bar, to the strains of The Champs’ “Tequila,” pouring shots into the waiting mouths of patrons.
Everything about him projects New York masculinity and confident strength, but everything about those two words threatened to end all that.
The words? Multiple sclerosis.
And Rocco Mangel has it.
So the entrepreneur and single dad to daughter Charley, 3, had two choices. He could crumble under the weight of the confirmation that he is one of 2.3 million people worldwide affected by MS, a disorder of the central nervous system in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue. Or he could get up and not only continue to make the best life for his family and his business partners, but for others in the community struggling under that same diagnosis.
He chose the latter.
“I want people to know that I’m able to live my life. I want them to know that it’s not over,” says Mangel, 43, who decided to publicly announce his MS diagnosis, and his partnership with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society South Florida Chapter, to bring awareness to the disease and the quest for a cure.
On Feb. 26, he will be the speaker at West Palm Beach MS Walk, leading Team Rocco and looking to meet his personal fund-raising goal of $25,000.
“The National MS Society is excited to collaborate with Rocco in his bold campaign to raise funds and awareness for Walk MS,” says Karen Dresbach, president of the National MS Society’s South Florida chapter. “By publicly sharing his recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Rocco serves as a voice for others all across our community to create a greater understanding of the needs of those impacted by this disease.”
Mangel’s “official, on-paper” diagnosis with what his doctors call a mild case of MS came less than five months ago, in September 2016. But he first heard the words, and was faced with the possibility of that wheelchair and everything that comes with it, back in 2009.
He actually traces his path of discovery back more than 20 years, to a 1994 car accident that “severed his olfactory nerve, so I can’t smell,” he says.
Because of that, Mangel has regularly seen ear, nose and throat doctors, and when he visited one in February 2009 thinking he might need a tonsillectomy, it was suggested that he get an MRI. The test showed multiple white lesions, a possible sign of MS. After the initial gut punch, he sought more MRIs that failed to show those lesions, also known as plaque.
So he kept going like he’d never heard those words, kept building that empire, kept pouring those tequila shots.
That is, until a 2011 flight to Bimini, in the Bahamas, when “my leg started to hurt, and I was tired. I knew something wasn’t right,” Mangel says. He got yet more testing, which still didn’t show the plaque, and did subsequent tests for Lyme disease, which came back negative. So did the next one.
But those negative tests didn’t explain away that feeling, or his increasing fatigue.
In 2015, sensing the need for “a change in my lifestyle for the better,” Mangel adopted a strict Paleo diet and stopped drinking, leaving those tequila shots for the patrons. He was working out six days a week, being positive and feeling good, until suddenly he wasn’t.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t feel the left side of my body,” Mangel remembers. “I waited till 5:30 a.m. and called my primary care doctor. Of course I decided it was anything but MS.”
But the next MRI showed that those white lesions that the original doctor saw back in 2009 were definitely there, and he was told, “‘It’s not good,’” he says.
Initially, he was told he had relapsing-remitting MS, which the National MS Society defines as the most common course of the disease. According to the society’s Web site, it is “characterized by clearly defined attacks of new or increasing neurological symptoms.”
Mangel “walked out of that office and felt like a pinball machine,” he says, but feeling uncomfortable about that diagnosis, he did what a good businessman does - “I used the networks I have and my resources to find another opinion.”
That led him eventually to neurologist Dr. Saud Sadiq, the director and chief research scientist of the Tisch MS Research Center of New York. And it was there that, finally, he got some answers.
“He said to me, ‘Whatever god you believe in, when you go home tonight thank that god for the type of MS that you have,’” Mangel recalls. He says that Dr. Sadiq describes MS as a misunderstood disease, and also one whose outcome can be greatly affected by fast-moving technology.
It’s believed that his mild form of the disease can be frozen at the current state it’s now presenting in.
Once he felt good about the diagnosis, Mangel informed the people who rely on him, including his staff and family. He says he’s “blessed to be able to maintain the life I have. I’m OK. I’m managing. Even with the fatigue, I can still ride my bike 25 miles to get coffee.”
While he’s feeling good, Mangel, who has always dedicated his resources to philanthropy, has decided to make his journey through MS not “about anyone helping me, but helping other people.”
With his involvement and personal fund-raising goals for February’s walk, he’s instituted specials at his restaurant to help. He says he waited to announce his diagnosis until he “could make sure I was in the right frame of mind. I wanted to make sure I could answer their questions, and get my mind under control.”
So he’s following in the footsteps of other people who have publicly addressed their own fight with MS, including Montel Williams, Jack Osbourne and actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler. And like them, Mangel wants his disclosure to create new truths about MS and what those with it can expect.
“It’s changed my life, and made it so different.,” he says. “Now, I can stop and smell a flower, look at a bird. I take the stairs, go to a rest stop and hold the door open for people. I want to spend time with my daughter. I was living my life at 9,000 miles an hour. Now I’m not.”
Mostly, Mangel says, he wants people to know that his life, and those of others with MS, can continue to thrive.
“I want people to know,” he says, “it’s not over.”
HOW ROCCO’S FIGHTING MS
Rocco Mangel will be the speaker at the West Palm Beach MS Walk ALS on Feb. 26. He is also the host of Team Rocco, alongside Maral Bardakjian, a 42-year-old mother of three who has been fighting MS since 2007. To donate to Team Rocco or join him at the Walk, visit: www.RoccosTacos.com/ms
Throughout February, to raise funds for MS research and recovery, Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar Florida locations will be donating a percentage of its Taco & Tequila Tuesdays’ sales to the National Multiple Sclorosis Society South Florida Chapter. When Rocco is on the bar, he will personally collect donations and pour complimentary tequila as a thank you. Supporters donating $25 will receive a bottle of Dobel Diamante 375ml, and those who donate $50 or more will take home a bottle of Maestro Dobel Silver 750ml.
Follow Rocco on his Facebook Fan Page to find out where he’ll be next, www.Facebook.com/RoccosTacos.