Rich Brooks, newspaper columnist for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, was diagnosed twelve years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Brooks has beaten the odds: only ten percent of people diagnosed with the disease live longer than ten years. Most die of respiratory failure inside five years.
A National Institutes of Health website defines ALS as a ‘rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles.’ It affects about 20,000 Americans, mostly men. No cure or known cause exists.
‘My initial symptoms were muscle cramps in my left hand,’ said Brooks in an email sent from his home. ‘What had me worried, though, was my golf game. When I nearly lost to my brother-in-law, the doctor, I knew I was in trouble.’
Obviously, he has maintained a sense of humor through it all.
‘Everyone has a cross to bear,’ he said. ‘That idea keeps me from feeling sorry for myself. Yet, every day it’s hard to get out of bed because I feel like I’m a load, a burden, to those I love. So I like to think I have a purpose for life that goes beyond paying the bills. Perhaps the hardest part has been seeing how this disease affects my relationship with my wife and sons.’
His challenges seem insignificant when compared to what his wife faces, he said. She must do everything, including ‘keeping me alive.’ People with ALS ultimately lose all voluntary muscle control, including the ability to breathe on their own. The disease normally doesn’t affect a person’s mind, bowel or bladder, or the ability to taste, hear, see, smell or feel touch.
As for accommodations made for him at work, he said, ‘The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the New York Times Company have been unwavering in supporting me. Not only have they kept me on the staff and allowed me to work out of home, but they also have submitted my work for some prestigious national awards.’
Along with other topics in his column, Brooks often writes humorously and openly about his nagging physical and emotional struggles with ALS. Over the years he has built up a very devoted fan base in southwest Florida. Advising people recently diagnosed with ALS, Brooks says to ‘hang in there’ because a cure is ‘less than ten years away.’