By Chris Pendergast
On a cold rainy Columbus Day, my life forever changed. Nothing would be the same. The life I knew ended. My wife, children and I embarked on a new road, one less traveled by. That has made all the difference.
During the Columbus Day weekend of 1993, I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Most people now know it is an incurable and uniformly fatal disease. Average life expectancy still hovers near the two or three-year mark. Lucky ones can live longer. A rare few survive longer than 10 years.
Remarkably, l am entering my 27th year with my unwanted road companion. I am here today due in large part to my loving wife, Christine, and our wonderful kids, Melissa and Buddy. They keep me well cared for and motivated. They have, literally, gone the extra mile for me. My grandson Patrick is the most effective medicine I take. My son-in-law Rich and step-grandson Ryan round out my terrific family.
I am blessed with caring, competent and compassionate caregivers, Tiana, Amanda, Marquita and Lena. They are in the trenches every day and night battling right beside and fighting the good fight with me. I am fortunate to have an outstanding mental health therapist, Dr. Melnekoff. He has kept me balanced, focused and headed in the right direction. My life is extended through the phenomenal care provided by my incredible respiratory therapist, Monty Rivera from Millennium. I receive expert medical treatment at the ALSA Clinic, which bears my name at Stony Brook University Hospital. Marvelous friends surround me and help with so many things to make our life easier. My ALS Ride for Life charity has countless volunteers led by staffers Maureen and Marilyn. Because of all their collective work, we have raised more than $8.5 million.
Along the road with ALS, I witnessed amazing things and met incredible people. I was able to participate in wonderful experiences which otherwise would not have happened.
Do I wish I never got ALS? Honestly, I am not sure. I am certain that at some point in almost everyone’s life, a fatal disease will arise. The timing and circumstances vary but the ending does not. I have no corner on the market — everyone will get a turn. My turn came earlier than expected and became more public.
It has been a great life so far. I wonder what new adventures and joys lie around the bend. Besides the joys to come, there are also the challenges and corresponding sorrows. However, I have faith and optimism that everyone one in my life will collectively help me triumph.
To paraphrase Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, as he did, I also say, “Look at these grand people. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his life just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
Chris Pendergast, 70, is a former Northport teacher, who lives in Miller Place. He is the founder of ALS Ride for Life, the Stony Brook University-based nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about ALS, funding research and providing patient services.