Those three words describe how PatientsLikeMe member Steve says he has adapted to life with motor neuron disease (MND). He was diagnosed with MND (also known as ALS) in 2007, and technology has helped Steve navigate the challenges of living with ALS while raising three children. He’s also made a video about his journey, called “Motor Neuron Disease Made Easier.” Steve spoke with us about the decisions that come with a MND diagnosis, the inspiration for his film and “how adaptable one can be in the face of adversity.” Read more about Steve’s story below and head to his blog to watch his film.
Looking back over the last 7 years since your diagnosis with ALS/MND, is there anything you’d like to have known sooner that has helped you along your journey?
I think I was fairly pragmatic about researching the condition from the outset, so there haven’t been many surprises apart from the fact that I am still here 7 years later (and I just realized it’s actually 7 years to the hour as I write). One of the difficulties with the disease is the uncertainty of the rate or nature of its progression. There is so much equipment, mostly hideously expensive, that you will need if you want to mitigate the effects of the disease – wheelchairs, hoists, adapted vehicles, communication aids, modifications to your home, the list goes on. But if you don’t know how long, for instance, you will be able to use a standing hoist, you can’t assess whether it’s worth spending the £2000 (about $3,000USD) on one. I know there’s a degree of uncertainty with the prognosis of many illnesses but I can’t think of another which comes close to the complexity of MND.
You’ve documented your experiences in your film “My Motor Neuron Disease Made Easier” – can you share a little about your inspiration for the project?
The thought of having MND without the internet is terrifying. The amount of information available regarding equipment and solutions to our multitude of challenges is staggering. However there aren’t many websites, which bring everything together. And many have information without presenting it in a real world context. So I thought that a video demonstrating most of the equipment I use would be a simple and quick way for fellow sufferers to see what’s available, but more importantly seeing it being used. Furthermore, I have realized that for many issues there simply isn’t an off the shelf solution. And in my experience many of the healthcare professionals just aren’t very creative, so I wanted to share my ideas like the chin support, heel pressure reliever and hoisting techniques to others. Having made the video, the filmmaker, Bernard, wanted to expand the idea to how MND impacts on a family. Then finally I wanted a sixty seconds version, which could be potentially used as a hard-hitting awareness campaign. The 3000-word narrative took several days to type using eye movements, but I am proud of the results.
How has technology helped you cope with the impact of ALS/MND? Is there anything you can recommend for PALS who might not be as comfortable with technology?
Technology has undoubtedly made coping with the disease far easier. Having had over 20 years experience in IT, I appreciate that I am better equipped than most to adapt to new technology. But you really don’t need any technical ability to use an eyegaze system for communication purposes, which is the most important benefit it offers. Actually, initially I only used it for this purpose. It was only after I got more confident with eye control that I ventured out of the easy environment of The Grid 2 software and started using Windows directly. I am now able to do anything anyone else could do with a computer. It also allows me to participate with family life as I am able to control all the computers and network devices in the house, which means I can sort all the problems out. I am even in the process of buying a house using my eyes.
I arranged all the viewings, negotiated the price, organized quotes for adaptations, dealt with solicitors, scanned necessary documents, bought hoists and other equipment on Ebay, arranged dropped kerbs for wheelchair access with the council and will hopefully move before Christmas. The only thing my wife had to do was choose the sofa! So almost anything is still possible.
Your blog is testament to your incredibly busy family life! Being a father of three boys, what impact has ALS/MND had on your approach to parenting and family life?
I have to say that the impact of MND on my abilities as a father has been the hardest thing about this disease. My triplet sons were 6 years old when I was diagnosed and I was confined to a wheelchair by the time they were 8, and when they were 9 I could no longer talk to them. They are now nearly 14 and I am grateful that I am still here but we have missed out on so much, both physically and through communication.
The most obvious impact are the physical restrictions. Almost every activity that a parent enjoys with their kids has been denied to me, from kicking a ball around in a park to giving them a hug. But maybe a more important loss is that of communication.
Eyegaze is undeniably an incredible means of communication but it’s certainly not conducive to flowing conversations. Ten-year-old boys aren’t very interested in waiting around while you laboriously construct a sentence, especially if they think it’s finally going to read “no xbox for a week”! Trying to teach something using eyegaze or trying to discipline using eyegaze is at best frustrating and ineffective respectively. That’s not to say I don’t try but these are two of the most important roles of a parent, which for me have been severely compromised. However I am still able to contribute in other ways. Being able to control all the computers in the house means I can help out with IT related stuff. I have setup Minecraft servers for them and helped install mods, I have installed and monitored parental control software and setup backup facilities and I have fixed virus problems.
When I could still drive my wheelchair independently and didn’t require a full time carer, we were still able to go out to places as a family regularly. But as the logistics of getting out got more complex, the family activities decreased, although this is equally contributable to the troglodyte tendencies of teenage boys.
What has been the most unexpected thing you have learned during your journey with ALS/MND?
I guess it would be how adaptable one can be in the face of adversity. In one of my videos I mention remembering when I learnt about Stephen Hawking and thinking how can anyone live like that. It seemed so horrific. But I am living like that, and whilst I disagree with some PALS who say there are positive aspects to our situation, you do adapt to it if you develop these three key attributes – perseverance, patience and most importantly, ACCEPTANCE. I won’t say these are responsible for my longevity (that’s just down to good fortune), but they have made the last seven years bearable.
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