There is a lot of illness in the land, and there are varying ways of coping.
The final piece on this weekend edition of the CBS Evening News told the story of a man dying of ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The fellow is a businessman in North Carolina and father of two who had an admittedly crazy idea to give away donuts, lots of donuts, to school children, just to make them smile. Krispy Kreme got wind of the far fetched plan and provided thousands of donuts and a bus to make his deliveries to area schools. He demonstrated how to live while dying.
I have learned through writing columns and books about real people living with serious conditions that people are stronger than they think, and many if not most rise to the occasion. I have written about good people, strong souls, who soldier on, living their lives as best they can. I think self-defined victims are in the minority. there is a lesson here for those who grapple with serious health issues.
Grace in the face of serious sickness is stunning to witness. It is a blessing for families of those who must face the task. It eases the pain of spouses and children of any age. Aplomb and dignity become a gift to the sick, too. The ability to rise above the daunting challenges at hand and think of others is remarkable. Satisfaction is to be drawn from that skill. I sat on a panel with Elizabeth Edwards in her last years of life. I told her I admired how she comported herself. She just smiled because she knew what I meant.
After some years on the Advisory Council of the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center, I told its founder, the former Dean of the Harvard Medical School, I would rather have MS than Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS or Huntington’s, the other illnesses being researched at the Center. Each is a uniquely horrible condition. MS is no picnic, but I would not trade places, and this makes a point.
It is a valuable coping mechanism, at least for me. Look around. See the suffering in our midst. We are not in the battle with chronic illness, really any kind of illness, alone. There are over one hundred and thirty million of us. Many chronic conditions are cruel. Others have it worse than we do. I profiled a woman with ALS in one of my books. I was introduced into the ALS community and saw the illness at close range. ALS carries an average life expectancy of two to five years and a slow death.
The ALS community is very active and tight, more so, perhaps, than the MS community. Probably that is because ALS automatically means a tough journey down a one way street. People who must live and die with the illness need each other. That offers a useful frame of reference for adjusting to other physical problems, specifically, our own.