My ALS Adventure – Telling My Children

My father would not talk about it even when my mother’s leukemia was far advanced.  She had great courage and accepted that, but her last months must have been desperately lonely. 

It was the same a few years later when my step-mother died of colon cancer.  My dad cared for her physically but he would not talk with her about her fear.  

Englishmen of my generation, too, were taught that feelings are never to be acknowledged.  I’d seen the suffering that creates and wanted to do better for my family.

Nonetheless, while what I wrote at this time about recognizing the imminence of my death was true, my awareness of it was almost certainly more intellectual than I imagined.

March 1 – To my family

I wish I could have seen the Johns Hopkins neurologist in the first place.  She is so thorough and expert.

She says there are three possibilities.  There’s a series of tests where electrical currents and pin pricks are applied to see well how the nerves transmit signals.  Each of the diagnoses has a different profile of test results so once I’ve had those tests we’ll know which one is right.  I hope to have the tests soon.

The possibilities are, most likely to least likely:

  1. Bulbar myesthenia
  2. Bulbar myopathy
  3. ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease

The first is a specific form of myesthenia gravis, where nerve receptors lose sensitivity and the associated muscles get a weaker stimulus.  Another form is ocular myesthenia which the neurologist in Maine thought I might have.  Bulbar makes more sense because it refers to the mouth and throat whereas ocular refers to the eyes.

We debated whether to tell you the other possibilities because there’s no treatment for them but I think the best way to live is in awareness that anything can happen, some preparation for disaster makes sense, and we should focus all the rest of our time on living happily.

I will not be worrying about the diagnoses I don’t want. Please don’t you worry either.  I’ll let you know when the tests are scheduled.

March 22 – To my family

We just got back from getting my tests done.

A technician applied voltage with a pen-like device to various parts of the surface of my limbs that were picked up by sensors on the skin in other places.  The results were stored and displayed in graph form on a computer.

Then a doctor applied voltage using a needle that pierced the skin, which wasn’t bad until he poked it up from under my chin deep into my tongue muscle. He had a younger resident with him who applied the needle to my left leg after she observed him do it to my right, and to my left arm after seeing how he did it to the right.  She went deeper than he did 🙁

The doctor then had a technician apply voltage to the surface of the left side of my face.  The technician told us he didn’t know how to interpret any of the results but we might be able to get something out of the doctor.  He suggested we hang around until the doctor finished with another patient.

The only definite thing we learned is the rest of my body is fine.  It feels the same as it always has but it’s good to know it really is all ok.

The doctor would not speculate about what could be wrong, saying these test results showed only mild results and he would need to know more of my history and see my MRI, blood and other test results before he could make a diagnosis.

The doctor who ordered today’s tests will arrange to see us.  Felicity will call tomorrow to get that scheduled as soon as possible.

So, although we were hoping for a diagnosis today, that was unrealistic because the doctor who ordered the tests was not the one doing them.  Nonetheless, it’s disappointing to have to wait longer to know what’s wrong.

March 24 – To my family

The neurologist called.  She says the tests I had a couple of days ago are not conclusive but they do rule out bulbar myesthenia, the one that’s treatable.  It’s likely I’m in the early stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) but she will arrange more tests to confirm or change that diagnosis in the next couple of weeks.

Specifically, testing the strength of my breathing will reveal whether my diaphragm is strong.  It is as far as I can tell.  And a spinal tap will show if anything’s there that shouldn’t be present in the fluid around my spinal column.

I’m eager for the spinal tap result to see if there’s evidence from when the brown-tail moths triggered my rash last summer along with the feeling that my tongue was enlarged.  There is, as far as I’ve found so far, no known trigger for the onset of ALS yet my speech and swallowing problem began when I had that allergic response.  Both my neurologist and the doctor who did the tests a couple of days ago dismiss my brown-tail moth rash as a coincidence.  I don’t.

The other reason to be somewhat skeptical about the provisional diagnosis is it relies chiefly on tests done a couple of days ago by a doctor whose specialty is ALS.  We humans tend to see what we expect to see.  ALS is what he expected to see.

But I’m assuming it probably is ALS so I’ve started research.  About 25% of ALS patients start with Progressive Bulbar Palsy (PBP), which affects only speech and swallowing.  They are controlled by the medulla, which used to be known as the bulb.  A drug, Ritulek, is indicated for PBP patients in several articles I’ve read but I haven’t yet explored what it does.  Speech and physical therapy are also recommended, so I’ll resume my speech exercises and get back on the cross-trainer.

Some articles say the life expectancy for PBP patients is 6-24 months, however a doctor at Rutgers has many patients who lived 2-5 years with PBP before it progressed to ALS and some folks, like Steven Hawking, live with ALS for a very long time, 50 years so far in his case.

I mention these numbers so you won’t waste time researching them and because, if there is anything you’d like me to do while I remain healthy, please let me know.

My feelings about all this may change, but a fundamental Buddhist practice is training oneself not just to know intellectually and ignore, but to really feel the truth that every one of us will die and, more importantly, that it could happen at any moment.  I’ve been feeling increasingly okay with that for quite a while now.

Another thing we do is try to act on the truth that every circumstance is an opportunity to practice acceptance.  I was shocked into recognizing that by a fellow student in Kathmandu whose husband had died within three months.  That was only six months before the class and they were both in their mid-30s.  I said I hoped her grief would not be too great or too long.  She said she was not trying to overcome her grief but to learn from it.

That may be the most helpful thing anyone has ever said to me.

So, the diagnosis is not yet definite but the provisional one is likely to be right.  I’ll keep you posted, of course.  Meanwhile, please do not be downhearted.  This will develop however it does and we will all respond well.  Mom says she will treat it as our next big adventure.

March 26 – To my family

Hi again, everyone.  No news, I just want to give you — with permission 🙂 — a reply to my last email:

I’m not sure how to react – or rather, I feel as though there are many different reactions occurring in me but that they’re all almost…subsurface.  Like maybe I could look inward, take hold of any of them, focus on it, and it’d be amplified. 

Naturally, I hope that the actual causes are not as serious as ALS seems to be.  There are many thoughts.  Of how others of us will experience this, if it is serious.  Of what I ought to do, or say.  Thoughts that your calm and accepting views, inspired by your practice, are a stabilizing and helpful influence while discussing this provisional diagnosis, certainly for me and I suspect also for others. 

It’s odd, the provisional diagnosis feels like I ought to think of it with great gravity, but that reaction also feels like clothing that doesn’t fit quite right, like an actor playing the role that’s written for them.  Like that’s how I think I’m supposed to react but the reaction is a story.  I don’t know.  Certainly it’s serious, but as you say, all our lives will end.  I hope yours doesn’t end soon, deeply hope this, but.  It will or it will not. 

The idea that there’s time that could be taken from you and us is only harmful.  There’s no future time that can be taken, only time from the present moment that we can get, all we can ever get is another moment.  A truth my own practice teaches me to accept but not how we instinctively understand things, which maybe is why I feel this strange sense of much movement beneath the surface of my mind. 

Do you also have that sense of confusion?  I do.  Questioning how I should react to this, and wondering how I am in fact reacting?  The last few nights I’ve found myself waking several times, not feeling anxious or thinking about anything and returning to sleep quite quickly, but I usually sleep like a log.  There’s something going on under the surface.

It feels rather like a trip to Nepal.  Perhaps I will recover as mysteriously as I got sick, like if my trip ended for some reason before anything new happened.  But more likely, I’m going to experience things that are new to me.  It will help me to write about them every so often if that happens.  Don’t worry, I won’t write daily!  I hope doing that will be helpful to more than just me, and I hope you’ll chip in periodically with your own reactions, too.

I feel very lucky that we’re a family of good individuals who work seriously at behaving well, and that we each have a way that suits us.

I believe you all know that while training with a form of Tibetan Buddhism and reflecting on quantum physics helps me grow more aware and less selfish, I would never try to persuade anyone else to adopt my method.  I just think it’s good to share how we’re dealing with our feelings and ideas.

Finally, I was especially struck by this:  The idea that there’s time that could be taken from you and us is only harmful.  There’s no future time that can be taken, only time from the present moment that we can get, all we can ever get is another moment.  That is so right.  I enjoyed transplanting three shrubs this morning and, assuming I get more moments tomorrow, I shall enjoy transplanting three more then.

One comment on “My ALS Adventure – Telling My Children

  1. Dear Martin,
    I am saddened by this news, but grateful that your Buddhist practices allow you to accept these changes and still flourish.
    We lost my sister’s first husband to ALS a few decades ago, pre-internet. He and I shared an offbest sense of humor, which we maintained via phone between NJ and Texas, as his condition started in his knees and didn’t affect his speech. May I share a couple of anecdotes, which still make me smile whenever I think of him.
    The first was in the early stages, when he and my sister were investingating all possible treatments. He lay on the floor with his headphones on, listening to a tape instructing him to imagine a bright white light, burning out the disease. When he got up to use the bathroom, he looked in the mirror and saw ash around his ears. The euphoria quickly turned to humor, as he realized it was particles of headphone foam, which had been drying out.
    The second came when he was in a wheelchair. My sister was outside gardening when the phone rang and she heard Dave say “I’ll get it.” Soon, it sounded like he was agitated, and by the time my sister got inside, Dave was yelling, “What kind of sick joke is this?! Don’t you know I’m in a wheelchair!!”, and he slammed down the phone. The next minute he let out a big laugh. “That poor girl! I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, and I finally have an excuse.” It was an Arthur Murrary cold call, offering free dance lessons.
    May each day bring you some form of joy.
    p.s. here’s something that always brings me joy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *