When my wife and I first started our journey towards an ALS diagnosis, we were chasing the idea that a meningioma was causing fasciculations (muscle tremors) and the weakness in my right leg. After numerous falls and, finally, a concussion, the subsequent MRI turned up evidence of this benign growth in the rear part of my brain. I thought it would be a simple process: open up my skull, remove the offending tissue, sew me back up, do a couple of months of rehab, and I would be up and running again. No problem. But, I knew it wouldn’t be this straight-forward. The one thing in the back of my mind (besides the suspected tumor, Haha!) was the thought that once you crack the shell open, things would never be the same.
I was anxious about the surgery and the possible complications that would come with it. I went to consult with a neurosurgeon and told him about my symptoms. He immediately said my ailments were not the result of a tumor. After observing my gait with the right foot dropping, he referred me to a neurologist.
What, no surgery? Maybe this isn’t as bad as I first thought.
My appointment was two weeks away. I didn’t like waiting for answers – in my pre-ALS days, patience was not a virtue I possessed – so I passed the days researching my symptoms. Everything I came across lead to ALS. I found out it was also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” If you’re an avid baseball fan like I am, it’s impossible not to know who the great Lou Gehrig was and that he also died from this mysterious disease.
Okay, not good, this is serious, but, wait a minute, Kip. Don’t panic, yet. Surely, after all of this time, there must be a cure. Alas, I found out the cold, hard fact that, despite it being almost 75 years since his death, a cure has not been found – it remains to this day a terminal disease.
My heart sank, I called my wife from work (sorry, bosses) and told her what my hypothesis was. Still, this dismal probability couldn’t deter us from holding on to hope. Maybe, the neurologist could up with other possibilities of what was responsible for my symptoms.
I remember my first appointment and the aftermath all too well. My heart was beating faster with every step I took toward her office door. I couldn’t get a solid grip on the doorknob because my palms were so sweaty. I remember that my breathing was out of control, and I was on the verge of hyperventilating. On top of that, the fasciculations were relentless and firing off over my entire body.
She watched me walk up and down the hallway. After I had done it, we came back into the exam room and sat down. She proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t going to like what she had to say. Before she could get the next sentence out, I blurted, “It’s ALS, isn’t it.” She nodded.
The neurologist sent me downstairs to the lab for a blood test to eliminate the possibility of heavy metal poisoning. There was a long corridor between the waiting room and the lab. I vaguely remember my wife asking me if I needed any help with walking down there. I told her no, I thought I would be fine.
As I began to walk, I could feel my wife studying me with her eyes watching to see if I needed any help. The dimly lit passage was empty: no passing strangers to acknowledge; no activity of any kind to divert my attention from my encroaching thoughts. The only sounds were coming from my slow, shuffling footsteps on the white, tiled floor. I concentrated on walking straight and upright. I was determined to not let my wife see any sign of weakness.
My left foot swung in front of my right flawlessly; I heard the quiet “pat” as the bottom of my left sneaker made contact with the floor. However, my right foot had a mind of its own. To compensate for the drop-foot, I had to raise the leg up, make sure the top of my foot cleared the floor while I swung it in front of the left, then keep it from dropping to the floor with as much grace as I can muster – this takes more strength to accomplish with every step I took.
Pat, shuffle, clump! Pat, shuffle, clump! Pat, shuffle, clump! I focused on the rhythm of my gait hoping this would pacify my consciousness so it would block the pure terror that was trying to claw its way into it.
Oh my God, I’m going to die! The proclamation shot up from the depths of my soul, out from the dark abyss where I thought had successfully buried it. This was to be the first volley of an onslaught of ghastly phrases that soon followed. I’m too young to die… You’ve been cheated… What will happen to my wife?… She’s going to watch me die… If she stays… Will she leave?… I’ll be all alone… What about my sister?… My dad?… He’ll have to bury me… No parent should see their kid die… Paralysis… Suffocation… Drowning… A slow death… Alone… You have nobody… You’re gonna die alone…
I felt my knees get wobbly. The tip of my right foot caught the floor as I was swinging it forward. I grasped for the side railing as I began to fall forward. My hand found it in time to recover my balance.
Why did God let this happen to you?… God, oh God, where are you?… I need you… It was this thought that brought me to the floor. On my knees, doubled over in agony, all I could do was cry. My torment echoed off the walls of the vacant hallway down to the waiting room where my wife was watching me with tears in her eyes.
I have no idea how I made it to the lab. The only other thing I remembered about the rest of the day was holding my wife tightly in bed that night with fasciculations popping off all over my body. I was so nervous that I couldn’t fall asleep. I was too busy looking up at the ceiling, staring into the unknown.
Copyright © 2016 Kipling A. Jackson