Lou Gehrig’s Disease - ALS

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I have been a (long-suffering) Mets' fan since the team began. But unlike most Yankees' fans who hate the Mets, I don’t hate the Yankees, I just don’t watch them. But as a baseball fan, I do marvel at the rich history of the Yankees' teams and their great players like Ruth, Maris, Mantle, and Jackson. And of course, the colorful characters like Billy Martin. One of their greatest was “The Iron Man,” Lou Gehrig, who played his last game 80 years ago. He played 2,130 consecutive games from 1925 to 1939. He took himself out on May 2, 1939 because he had developed progressive leg and arm weakness. He stumbled over curbstones and dropped objects he was holding. He sought medical care at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was there that he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. He died two years later, and ALS has also been called Lou Gehrig’s disease since.

The term ALS was coined in 1874 by the French neurologist Jean-Marie Charcot. It’s also been called Charcot’s disease. The name comes from the Greek words a, meaning “no,” myo, meaning “muscle,” and trophia, meaning “nourishment.” Sclerosis refers to “hardening” and “scarring” of the spinal cord due to the death of neurons. The symptoms were first described in 1824 by Charles Bell. The disease kills neurons, or nerve cells, that control voluntary muscles. Early symptoms are muscle stiffness and weakness, twitching, and atrophy (muscle wasting). Later symptoms include inability to speak, swallow, and eventually breathe without assistance. The cause is unknown in about 90% of cases and five to 10% are inherited from parents (familial ALS). Over 20 genes linked to familial ALS have been discovered. Risk factors include smoking, contact sports, and head injuries. Age of onset is about 50 in inherited cases and 60 in other, non-familial cases, although it does occur in younger people, even teenagers. There is no cure for ALS. There are medications that may extend life, but usually only for a few months. As the disease progresses, wheelchairs, ventilators, and feeding tubes become necessary. Average survival is two to four years, although in some cases it can be considerably longer, as it was for Stephen Hawking. Death is usually due to respiratory failure or pneumonia.

Lou Gehrig’s tragic story has an important lesson for all of us. The lesson comes not from his diagnosis and treatment, but rather from the grace and dignity he showed while facing a fatal illness. This was most evident on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.” The stadium was packed with over 61,000 fans, and he received honor and recognition from his teammates and manager. Babe Ruth was present, as was Lou’s wife and his parents. In his speech to the fans, he said, “Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” His speech focused on the positive and not the negative. He focused on things that give life meaning and value. If you’ve never seen “Pride of the Yankees,” an old movie that tells his life story, I recommend that you watch it. It’s a wonderful film, although a bit of a tear-jerker.

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