Monday, April 30, 2007

Heartaches and heartbreaks

THE BEARDED GIANT of a man glided through the warm November fog in his new Caddy convertible. His arm hung out the window as he and a butner headed for a cattle sale near Kitchener, Ontario.
His muscular physique had, seemingly, been destined for a football career and he even coveted a lengthy time in wrestling.
Following the cattle sale, the smiling Giant and his buddy retired to a pub and cooled off with a half dozen beers.
In the hours that followed, he noticed a sharp pain searing through his left shoulder. The Giant shook it off for he'd had much more severe pain on the playing field. However, overnight, his life changed forever.
The pain intensified. His friends convinced him liquor would soothe the ache that now spread throughout his body. The booze didn't help as he poured quarts down his throat.
With him lapsing into a semi-conscious state, a hospital ambulance was summoned; however, with so much liquor in his body, his doctor was livid and it took an entire weekend for the effects of the liquor to dissipate.
The series of tests followed with biopsies, spinal taps and prodding of his semi-conscious body and suddenly he started dropping weight from 270 to below 200 pounds. His frailness became noticeable to his friends and family in Hamilton General Hospital.
Soon his hands and arms were paralyzed and all muscle tone disappeared. Some thought it was Lou Gehrig's Disease -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- named after the magnificent Yankee teammate of Babe Ruth. The great Iron Horse lost his skills in dramatic fashion in 1939 as old-time New York sportswriter Joe Williams noted: "We could almost hear his bones creak."
However, the Giant's doctor ruled it as "just a virus," even though he had no movement in his hands and depended even on others to assist him in opening a door or turning a TV knob. Over the period of a year, he was able to function again and he returned to his newspaper career, although his athletic career faded. It was years later that I was diagnosed to having Guilliane-Barre' syndrome. Dealing with it has been a struggle; however, it's another disease that seems incurable like Lou Gehrig's Disease that has taken so many lives of young and aspiring athletes.
Such related illnesses are often associated with playing on contaminated surfaces, such as chemical dumps. I know I have.
Take for instance, three players from the 1964 San Francisco Forty-Niners, who were diagnosed as having ALS. Running back Gary Lewis and Matt Hazeltine died in 1987 while quarterback Bob Waters also was felled by it.
Was it drugs? Was it the environment? Was it something sprayed on the practice field that triggered a breakdown in the body's immune system? Was it coincidence?
The questions after all these years still go unanswered.
A skilled linebacker friend of mine, who played on a chemical dump in the Toronto area throughout his career, diagnosed the problem just before he died of ALS. "It was the playing surface," the unidentified athlete, we'll call him Sam, told me. It was tragic as he faded into a frail, old man. Although only in his late 20s, Sam appeared as being in his late 80s.
ALS Canada has sent Dr. Donald McLachlan, a University of Toronto research neurologist, to Guam on several occasions to uncover a clue to the enigmatic killer, for on the U.S. Pacific island the incidences are 100 times greater than the norm. In the late 1980s, the disease struck 3,500 Americans -- two out of every 100,000 Americans -- annually.
Dr. McLachlan also had been probing into the relationship between Alzheimer's Disease and ALS, for he has noticed similarities, particularly in the concentration of aluminum, during autopsies on the brains of the victims of the two diseases.
There's another peculiar aspect to ALS, notably in Canada, in that the incidences are greater in three separate pockets: one in Nova Scotia, one in British Columbia and in the Windsor-Essex areas of Ontario.
However, not only athletes have been struck down, but distinguished actors such as the late David Niven. In the last few years of his life, Niven was a far cry from the dashing and energetic man who graced the movie screens and who was the author of a number of best-selling novels. ALS took an insidious toll of Niven's body, taking the use of his voice box, with Rich Little dubbing in Niven's unmistakable and distinguished speech.
It seems ALS has no cure and its victims are fated to die an early death.
As for Guillaine-Barre', it has no known cure, but its victims usually live productive lives. It has lingering effects, for each morning I wake up with numbness in my hands, arms and legs and my muscles have weakened a once strong man.

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