Say hello to Cris (@Criss02), another member of the 2016-2017 Team of Advisors. Cris is a proud grandparent and a vocal advocate for the ALS community. She sat down with us and opened up about what it’s really like to live with her condition.
Cris recently presented at the ALS Advocacy conference in Washington D.C., and she chatted with us about why raising her voice is so important: “Without our voices things would remain the status quo.”
What gives you the greatest joy and puts a smile on your face?
Family. Just waking up in the morning. Thankful my son and his wife have taken us in so we’re not alone on this journey. So proud of him as a dad, teacher/coach! Seeing my teenage grandson each day with his silly sense of humor, loving kindness and our talks about his day as he lays on my bed. Seeing my granddaughter every day and proud of the woman and mother she has become – we watch our great granddaughter for her while she works. I can’t hold her but I can feed her on my lap and talk and be silly with her, my husband has diaper duty! Such a joy to be able to spend time with an infant, watch her grow, smile and coo as she becomes more aware.
What has been your greatest obstacle living with your condition, and what societal shifts do you think need to happen so that we’re more compassionate or understanding of these challenges?
Without hesitation my greatest obstacle is losing independence. The ability to just get in the car to go shopping, grandson’s football and baseball games or dinner without worrying about weakness, falling or becoming fatigued causing excursion to be cut short for my “driver”. It becomes my main concern when deciding participation in outside activities – consequently I am missing out on events I enjoy.
Ironically, I never hesitate to go to health related advocacy and meeting events (near and far) – perhaps because I’m in a comfortable “safe place” with “my own”. I’m still able to walk short distances without assistance. However it’s unnerving being in the general public subject to constant stares or side glanced looks at my unstable walking. Often wonder if they think I’m intoxicated (which is funny as I don’t drink alcohol) – I’ve jokingly asked if I did drink would it straighten my gait? Upcoming wheelchair usage will undoubtedly escalate social anxiety and more stares.
Public awareness and compassion seems to be insurmountable making the question of on how to further their understanding. My thoughts are start with the young and teens – with the hopes as they grow older they will share compassion. Unfortunately, it seems, unless one has a personal experience with someone with a disease or disability they are complacent. That’s sad.
How would you describe your condition to someone who isn’t living with it and doesn’t understand what it’s like?
Living with ALS, at least my experience so far, is like feeling your body deteriorate one stiffening muscle spasm and tingling nerve at a time all the while your brain is telling you “it’ll pass”…only it doesn’t. Mornings are the hardest moving a finger at a time, then a toe or legs carefully trying to avoid horrific muscle spasms that hurt after subsiding – as if I had just run a marathon or worked out with weights. The loss of use in one arm/hand (2 years now) was tolerable, although as a graphic designer was career ending – now my good right arm/hand is increasingly becoming deficient – although I can still type with one finger. Having someone cut my food has since altered what I choose to eat in company. The mind will still be active as the body loses every function. I’m one of the fortunate slow progression patients still with use of my weakening legs, although several falls have awakened my denial knowing a wheelchair is in the near future. It will need to be tricked out – a power wheelchair with necessary medical features geared for someone with ALS and total function loss. Eventually I’ll be unable to breathe and may use a breathing device or unable speak and with luck will get an eye gaze communicator. Without all it will be death. There is no cure. But living day to day I do the best I can to make every day count.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone newly diagnosed with a chronic condition, what would it be?
Take your head out of the sand. Denial is not healthy and a waste of precious time! Importantly with any disease, I highly recommend working closely with your specialist or specialized clinic. Ask about clinical trials – early in diagnosis this could be critical for acceptance in a protocol. Research trials, associations, medications, therapies…anything specific to the disease. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or disagree with treatments. Knowledge is key! Get involved in your diagnosis and it’s “your” future.
How important has it been to you to find other people with your condition who understand what you’re going through?
Extremely important to connect with my fellow pALS and their cALS for emotional and knowledgeable support. They alone understand what I’m going through but unconditionally are matter of fact about its reality. My fellow patients are a family of a disease nobody wants.
Meeting pALS who have further and advanced progression but are still active in advocacy, policy changes, clinical research and more have been my inspirations and mentors. I no longer sit on the sidelines and for them I am eternally grateful.
Recount a time when you’ve had to advocate for yourself with your (provider, caregiver, insurer, someone else).
So far I haven’t had a problem and had to advocate with the exception of misdiagnosis for over a year. Since confirmed diagnosis I have been fortunate my specialist is a compassionate ALS advocate and researcher who has encouraged my advocacy and participation in educating others.
What made you want to join the PatientsLikeMe Team of Advisors?
Participating in causes was barely on my agenda the past 60+ years – which I now feel was completely selfish. I was just working, raising kids and grandkids. However, since my diagnosis I came to realize I wasted precious time when my small voice could’ve been heard somewhere making a difference. When I started a clinical trial protocol I was introduced to PatientsLikeMe and instantly felt a bond with the pALS in my forum and was pleased to have met a few at Advocacy in Washington and was surprised by their openness and requests for information and my story. Quickly I knew I wanted to help in any way possible from my diseases perspective to others who just needed a shoulder or guidance. I am thankful that I have the opportunity to “make a difference” so late in my life.
How has PatientsLikeMe (or other members of the PatientsLikeMe community) impacted how you cope with your condition?
I have a pretty good attitude and honestly know what’s in store but other members who are going through the worse aspects of this horrific disease have helped me accept reality. But, with that reality have helped me understand the journey and that I’m not alone. “It takes a village.”
Why should a patient advocate for patients care, disease specific necessary medical equipment, legislation or clinical trials?
Without our voices things would remain the status quo – healthcare would continue to be impersonal, medical support equipment for specific diseases would go unused, legislators would put clinical trials on the back burner as being too expensive – consequently patients would continue to die. My closing remarks at ALS Advocacy in DC to my state senators and representatives is a sample of my feelings for our “asks” for my incurable disease but could the message could apply to many! “In closing, I do want to remind you – in 75 years ALS has not discriminated with age, gender, race or economic status and will strike unknowingly at any moment. So, next time YOU drop a pen, choke when your drink goes down wrong, get up stiff and unable to move after sitting or laying or you stumble over that blade of grass – maybe you will think about what legislation, clinical trials and medical support you would like in affect if ALS were to invade YOUR body.”
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