Friday, July 23, 2010

Are We Having Fun Yet?

I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to write about today. Then, a daily challenge of dealing with ALS came through and guided me. One of the facts of life in living with ALS is that at some point, for most people with this disease, your epiglottis begins to weaken, making it difficult to swallow your food without some of it finding its way down your trachea. Along with this, your diaphragm tends to weaken, making independent breathing, and coughing to clear your throat increasingly difficult. For more information about these and other symptoms visit the ALS Association website.

Typically, something will get stuck in my throat during one or two meals every day. Sometimes, it is possible to cough it up in a few minutes. Other times, it can take changes of position, the use of a machine called a “cough assist”, and several hours, before the tiny morsels of food that interfere with my breathing and speaking finally release their grip on the walls of my windpipe. Today was one of those days.

A few tiny pieces of cantaloupe from my morning smoothie refused to give themselves up all the way through my lunch hour. Once the coughing subsided enough for me to be able to eat my lunch, several bits of steamed vegetables decided to join the party. About three hours later, after several prolonged uses of the cough assist, enough of the food particles took their leave for me to be able to carry on a conversation. At this point, I looked up at my afternoon aide, Lloyd, who had been helping me extract the errant remnants of my meals, and said “Are we having fun yet?”.

The harsh reality is that this process is incredibly exhausting and depressing. It is easy to find yourself drifting into thoughts of “enough already”, and to imagine closing your eyes and never opening them again. My best weapon against such thoughts has consistently been my sense of humor. Lines such as “Are we there yet?”, “That was fun!” or “Let’s do that again!”, always shift me, get at least a smile from those around me, and relieve the tension in the room.

Although I believe that I am recovering from ALS, the fact remains that my level of paralysis is characteristic of the advanced stages of this illness. While achieving health gains over the past three years that include skin quality, weight gain, increased energy, and more hand strength, there are still symptoms like a weak epiglottis and diaphragm that test me every day. I believe that recovering from a serious illness or any significant challenge requires healing and/or growth on mental, emotional, physical and spiritual levels. Humor, for me, is one way of addressing both the mental and emotional components of any program for total health. What do you think?

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Passing of a Giving Soul

Monday morning, July 5th, at approximately 11:15 AM, my stepfather, George Rieger, passed peacefully from this world. He had been struggling for several months with heart valve weakness, breathing difficulty, excessive fluid and other complications. While we will miss him dearly, we are relieved that he is finally at rest.

George was one of the most giving people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. He wasn't polished or worldly, and he didn't have much, but whatever he had was yours. He was the type of person who would stop on a dark lonely highway in the middle of the night to help you change a flat tire when everyone else was passing you by. The man had a heart of gold, and was loved by many who knew him. He will be missed.

George lived in Florida, where he was cremated and will be put to rest with my Mom. He told his partner, Joyce, that he did not want any ceremony. Since he was not Jewish, I wasn’t sure that there would be a shiva. After meeting with the Rabbi, I discovered that it would be possible to sit shiva and do a memorial service in honor George's memory. This was a great relief to me. I needed closure. It was a great source of frustration being unable to travel to Florida and be with him during his final days. Although we spoke often by phone, and frequently during the final weeks, it just wasn’t the same as being there with him and letting him feel my love in person.

In addition to the typically powerful emotions that accompany a loss of a loved one, this has become another challenge to overcome in living with ALS. One of the symptoms of ALS is something called “emotional lability”. This means that you tend to be overcome by your emotions much more easily than before contracting the disease. While I don’t consider myself to be an overly “macho” type of guy, I must admit to finding it somewhat uncomfortable breaking down unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence when thinking or speaking about a sensitive topic like the loss of my stepfather. To put this in perspective, the same thing can happen in the middle of a sappy romantic comedy or in response to someone going out of their way to do me a favor. While I have always been a fairly passionate guy, this behavior is considerably more extreme than what I experienced prior to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sometimes, I just have to laugh about it, because getting upset only makes it worse. I certainly don’t want to lose my sensitivity, but it would be nice to have a little more balance.

This is a time for grieving, and I will allow myself to do so. I look forward to a time when I can look back fondly on my memories of George without feeling so much of the pain of his loss. Regrettably, this is far from my first experience with losing someone about whom I have cared deeply, and I have learned a great deal about grieving along the way. It is however, the first time having to go through this process with advanced ALS. Loss is a process with which we all have to deal sooner or later. I would love to hear some of your stories about what has helped you to get through it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Return to Cape May

One of the things I have desperately missed over the past several years is our summer vacations in Cape May, New Jersey with our good friends, Joel and Jane Lubin. It was our tradition for nine years, until the energy drain and logistics of travelling with ALS made our rendezvous too difficult. By the summer of 2009, I had regained enough strength, energy and emotional balance to spark interest in trying to resurrect our tradition. After some intense investigation into managing equipment and access to buildings, however, it turned out that Joel and Jane’s vacation house in Virginia was a longer ride but a much more manageable alternative. It was the longest trip we had made in almost four years, but worth every minute. In their typical loving and supportive way, Joel and Jane did everything imaginable to ensure my comfort, safety and access during the five days of our visit. Jane also made sure that I had all the organic produce needed to stay on track with my diet plan, and Joel handled personal care when my aide, Jimmy, took his afternoon walks.

So, instead of watching the porpoises frolic in the surf while sunning ourselves on the beach at Cape May, we watched birds in the backyard while relaxing in their sunroom. We also took in the vistas and wildlife of Shenandoah National Park while driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In place of the Victorian architecture of Cape May, we enjoyed the gardens and surroundings at the Glen Burnie House in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, and learned more about the area’s history. We ate well, watched movies, talked, and most importantly, thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. It is hard to find the words to adequately describe how uplifting and enjoyable it was to be able to spend extended quality time with them, and we are planning a return to Virginia next month.

Making this summer even more special, we renewed our rendezvous in Cape May this past weekend. We enjoyed meals together, took in the Victorian ambiance, strolled the boardwalk, and even caught a glimpse of a porpoise or two. Thanks to improvements in my health and the outstanding care and support from Jimmy, my wife, Diane, and Jane and Joel, Cape May has re-entered my life. It is one more example of things that have become possible again as I continue recovering from ALS.

Today is my 60th birthday, an event I never thought I would live to see back in 2003, when a doctor concluded that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was the reason my right leg had been growing steadily weaker for three years. Refusing to accept the doctor’s belief that ALS must always end in death, I struck off in pursuit of alternative healing. After four years of experimenting, healing strategies that help began to emerge. My purpose in writing this blog is to share with fellow PALS (persons with ALS) what has worked for me, and to provide examples for anyone of how perseverance and positive thinking can help in dealing with overwhelming challenges. My recovery is far from complete, but I grow more confident each day that it is within reach. A recent article in a local newspaper portrays me as someone who is beating the odds. If you’re interested, you can find the article, "Local man with Lou Gehrig's disease beating odds", at :

As always, your comments are appreciated. What examples can you share of how perseverance and positive thinking have turned your nightmares into miracles?