Don’t Let Chaos Rule

James - Salem, Oregon
Entered on January 2, 2009
Age Group: 65+


A story of courage by David Martin as told to James Castle

I must be doing something right because it’s 2008 and I am still living. In May 2005, after extensive testing, the doctors determined I had ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. My wife Pam was stunned at hearing the prognosis of this crippling disease but for me, the news was another “bite on the butt” in my ongoing health battle.

It all started in 1999, Salem, Oregon. Pam and I sat waiting for the doctor, a cancer specialist, to tell us my tests results. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about because I was healthy, was a top college athlete with no serious vices. “What’s taking him so long?” I thought, when finally the doctor entered and said, “David your test shows you have throat cancer”. This was a shock to us. The surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments were scheduled. After the throat cancer was removed I was unable to talk or eat. A temporary feeding tube was inserted into my stomach and for six months my diet consisted of liquids. Over time my throat healed enabling me to talk, and the tube was removed from my stomach. That first bite of solid food was fantastic!

Returning to work at the trucking company I soon faced hectic schedules and workload pressure. Having been a swimmer for 25 years I started swimming at the YMCA rebuilding my muscle tone and reducing my work stress. My weekends and vacations were devoted to relaxing and enjoying time with my wife, family, friends, and going fishing or hunting. Four years had passed and my cancer was in remission. Life was looking good!

In late winter 2003 I began feeling a gradual and persistent pain in my left jaw. Dental examinations revealed an abscessed molar. Coincidentally during this time I was experiencing pain in my neck and right arm. Because the neck pain was more severe we decided to postpone my dental work until after seeing the doctor about my neck. Tests on my neck and back revealed I had a ruptured spinal disc. Surgery was performed in August 2004 replacing the ruptured disc with one from a donor.

By October 2004 our finances were stretched because of lost work and enormous medical bills. The physical work that I had been able to perform was becoming more difficult and painful. Every movement was an effort and frustrating. Jokingly I told my boss, “ I wasn’t going to die in the office”. I continued pushing myself at work and at home determined to overcome the unbearable pain.

I returned to the doctor for treating the abscess and was told it was not healing because radiation and chemotherapy had depleted the oxygen in the body cells. To regenerate the cells I was placed in a decompression chamber, a procedure known as Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy or HBOT. Oxygen was pumped into the chamber creating a pressure equivalent to 1 to 3 atmospheres. These treatments were done during December 2004 through January 2005. The therapy was successful and the molar abscess healed.

Physically weak after back surgery, oxygen therapy, and treating the abscess I was determined to return to work By March 2005 my recovery wasn’t progressing as doctors had expected. Strength in my upper body and arms had worsened and my weight had dropped from 180 to155 pounds. Simple things like picking up the phone required using both hands. Pam and I agreed that work, stress, and frustration were preventing my full recovery. Unwilling to sacrifice my already fragile health I reluctantly resigned at age 54. Without a steady paycheck, unemployment, retirement income, or medical coverage our life style worsened dramatically. Disability barely paid the mortgage, utilities, while some unpaid bills piled up. Pam and I were continuously stressed over finances and my declining strength.

In May 2005 after another round of tests the doctors told me I had ALS. I felt my life was out of control and this news was the final straw. Every thing around me was in chaos and I became withdrawn and angry. A multitude of costly prescription drugs provided some temporarily physical relief. However, pills did nothing for the emotional chaos.

As a rugged native Oregonian I was raised to be self-reliant, able to handle any situation, and tough it out. I was determined to slow the loss of physical strength and search for inner strength, self-assurance, and peace. The question was “what can I do to combat ALS, achieve calm, maintain my body, and know that my life has a purpose?” My answer was daily yoga, focusing on physical exercise, meditation, and changing my anger to acceptance.

Keeping a daily yoga routine is sometimes easier said than done. As with any terminal illness I have good and bad days. On the bad days I force my will and fight the desire to do nothing but sit in my chair. Once I begin yoga I concentrate on core balance, stretching, and relaxation and appreciating the view through large sliding glass doors over looking Salem.

ALS has weakened my arms but my legs are strong enough and enable me to roam upstairs, or on the deck, or an occasional drive into town. A part-time caregiver assists me daily with bathing and preparing fresh veggies and fruit juices. The stomach “peg” is my only source of taking nutritional food supplements that has boosted my weight to 135 pounds. I also relish grooming my developing full beard that makes me appear heavier.

Pam, and my loving mother, devoted father, and supportive children provide me with regular updates on their active lives. Pam struggles with depression as my health declines but her work and assisting our grown children and grandchildren keep her busy. She enjoys decorating my room that I call “my space” for the holidays and special family occasions. I stay in contact with family, friends, and other ALS patients sharing stories and support by telephone and visits.

I believe yoga has provided me with a positive path for dealing with ALS. The quiet positive energy I gain has made me aware of a deeper love, devotion, and compassion for my family and friends. Most importantly to understand our life purpose I believe we must remove the chaos caused by any terminal illness such as ALS from our lives and seek peace and harmony