Ice + water + video camera = a viral ALS awareness campaign that has spread over social media and the news like wildfire. Millions of dollars has been raised for ALS research while more and more, people are learning about this neurological condition. Recently, PatientsLikeMe member Steve (who has been living with ALS since 2009) took on the challenge, and we caught up with him to find out why. Steve shared about his own diagnosis experience, what he thinks about the ALS community on PatientsLikeMe and what he hopes to see come out of the IceBucketChallenge. Don’t forget to follow Steve on his own blog, too. He calls it Bachblog.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your diagnosis with ALS?
I first noticed an odd cramping in my left hand sometime during the summer of 2009 when I was 49 years old. That fall, I realized I no longer had the strength to use fingernail clippers with my left hand. At the time, I was playing pickup basketball two or three days a week. I began to notice that after one hour of basketball I was “wiped out” and that I was having difficulty taking longer shots.
In January 2010 I saw a doctor for a sports hernia related to basketball. At my wife’s insistence, I brought up the cramping in my hand. He took one look at me (I was shirtless) and noted that I had fairly significant atrophy of the left arm. He referred me for an EMG, which I had a few days later.
Within a couple of months I got my neurologist to reluctantly admit that she believed I probably had ALS. She referred me to the University of Minnesota ALS clinic and, about a year later in February of 2011, I was given a definitive diagnosis.
Because I am a U.S. Navy veteran and the VA treats ALS as a “presumed service-related condition,” I am very well taken care of by the government. I am very fortunate in this respect and I wish all PALs had a similar level of support.
I retired in August 2011 as a computer programmer/analyst and UNIX systems administrator. My wife and I (with, at times, other members of my family including two daughters) have traveled quite a bit since my diagnosis: Hawaii, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and a Baltic cruise. I feel fortunate to have enjoyed years of relatively good health. However, I have declined to the point where any significant future travel would be very difficult.
Closer to home, I continue to enjoy family, reading, writing, online and (occasionally, with help) club and tournament Scrabble, trivia competitions, birding, and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx. In the past two years I have created crossword puzzles that I have shared on my blog. I have been very happy to walk both of my daughters “down the aisle” in the past year and to welcome two great guys to our family.
You called the IceBucketChallenge a “seemingly ridiculous internet meme” in your video. Why did you decide to take on the challenge?
At first I thought that it was a curious way to spread ALS awareness and not much more. Many of the videos I had seen barely mentioned ALS and few included appeals for donations. But that soon changed, and I began to read of the astounding amount of money being raised.
My team had raised around $7000 in two previous ALSA walks, but I was not planning to participate this year for a variety of reasons. I decided that I would use the ALSIceBucketChallenge to make a contribution this year.
There are a bunch of ALS organizations people can donate to. Why did you choose to call out ALS TDI in your video?
I believe that the ALSA, while not perfect, does a lot of good work on behalf of our community. But I know that only about 27 percent of money donated to the organization is dedicated to research. There are justifiable reasons for this figure, but in the spirit of this challenge I wanted to raise money specifically for research. I have been very impressed by the work and commitment of ALS TDI. I believe they offer a lot of “bang for the buck” and that their commitment to openly sharing what they learn is absolutely essential to the overall effort of finding a cure for ALS.
You’ve been part of the PatientsLikeMe community for more than 3 years! How has connecting and sharing with others living with ALS helped you?
I cannot begin to enumerate all that I have learned from the site. The experiences of PALs who have lived with this disease for longer than I have – and, sadly, those who have died – provide such a wealth of experience and advice. Every patient has a different experience with this disease, but there is nothing I have gone through or will go through that someone else has not faced. PatientsLikeMe has been and will continue to be a valuable resource as I struggle to meet each new challenge.
It looks like you update your Functional Rating Scale on PatientsLikeMe a lot. Why do you donate your health data? What does donating your health data mean to you and to research?
I try to update my FRS every time I have an appointment and am evaluated on the scale by healthcare professionals. If I had to do this over, I might have chosen to do it consistently every month.
During my participation in the dexpramipexole drug trial, my FRS scores should have been particularly helpful for researchers and PALS interested in the drug. I continue to contribute my numbers as I do not know how and when an aggregate comparison of participants’ scores may be useful.
We’re all working to find a cure for ALS, but what research advancements do you hope to see in the short term?
I believe, as do such brilliant PALs and advocates as Steve Saling, Steve Gleason and Eric Valor, that until a cure or effective treatments for the disease are found, technology IS the cure. I hope to see continuing refinements of the high-tech solutions to many of the challenges presented by this disease.
Support for research into assistive technologies and for sophisticated but expensive ALS residences is important.
As more and more people learn about ALS through the IceBucketChallenge, what’s something you think they might not understand about the condition that you’d like to share?
I know that PALs who have lost the ability to communicate or who communicate with much difficulty are often assumed to be somehow compromised mentally. They are talked down to or assumed to be deaf as well as mute. In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth. I have not experienced much of this yet, but the assumption or even the appearance of the assumption that we are unable to think, feel, make decisions and speak (even if technologically assisted) for ourselves is profoundly discouraging.
Were you part of the PALS/CALS group that sent the letter urging the ALSA to donate their funds to ALS TDI? If so, can you explain a little about the letter and why the group felt it was so important to send to ASLA?
I did not contribute to the creation of this letter but I did sign it. I think it is important for the ALSA to honor the wishes of the vast majority of contributors to this campaign and spend this money on research.
Having said that, I do not believe that it is necessarily a good idea to spend it all immediately. This windfall will not happen again. It is important that any research efforts funded by this money are sustainable. A research effort that spends a large amount of funds upfront without a realistic prospect of continuing support is a dead end. I would like to see the ALSA commit to long-term support for a few of the best and brightest independent research efforts. To researchers who are open and committed to sharing their efforts. Big pharma need not apply. To give these independent researchers assurance that their support will not dry up next year or the year after that is critically important. Therefore, not all of this money need be spent this year. It does need to be committed to research and invested wisely. This will be a challenge, but it is very important. More than ever before, ALSA needs to be transparent and responsive to its constituents in this matter.