When Christy French was honored as Atascadero Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year last year, her achievement was notable for several reasons: her excellence in teaching, which advanced placement statistics, her love for her students and possibly her greatest strength, her grace and humility.
“I just never thought I was ever a teacher who stood out,” she said at the time.
Although she retired from the district last year to continue teaching math at Cuesta and Cal Poly, those teaching posts are also now behind her as she confronts one of the greatest tests that life can throw at anyone: living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, an insidious, muscle-wasting disease that knows no cure.
Christy, 60, first noticed symptoms in December when she had trouble with her right hand while wrapping packages for Christmas. Then, she developed a limp as her left leg became weak. She underwent a couple of MRIs and a battery of other tests until, through the process of elimination, she was diagnosed.
Not only is there no cure, the cause of ALS is also a mystery, although about 10 percent of those diagnosed have a defective gene in common. Unfortunately, that gene runs in Christy’s family.
It’s a disease that affects five out of every 100,000 people around the world, although certain areas around the globe, such as Guam in the 1950s and ’60s, have had ALS clusters, a phenomenon scientists attribute to dietary factors.
Perhaps the most insidious facet of the disease is that as it attacks the motor neurons of the brain and spinal cord, leading to muscle wasting, which in turn leads to difficulty in breathing and swallowing, it doesn’t affect the senses or the brain. It’s an unspeakable imprisonment.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the average life expectancy of those with ALS is three to five years after diagnosis, although about 25 percent of those diagnosed live beyond five years. In fact, the quantum physicist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS some 40 years ago and has managed through complex and expensive technology to keep theorizing about the cosmos.
Someone in Christy’s position might be tempted to indulge in self-pity, but that’s not in her nature. Although she’s been an avid runner — having regularly run 25 miles a week and completing one of her many half-marathons six months ago — she now uses a walker to get around. And that means that she and husband, Skip (who will retire from teaching in the Atascadero district in a couple of weeks), must retrofit their Atascadero home with a lift for their stairs, reconfigure bathrooms and buy equipment such as a wheelchair as the disease continues its course.
Without the resources of a Stephen Hawking, there are costs associated with those retrofits. To help, some former students of Christy’s — now Atascadero firefighters — are holding a benefit barbecue Wednesday, May 30, at Atascadero Fire Department Station No. 1, 6005 Lewis Ave. near Atascadero Junior High School.
It’s a drive-through event. For $15 you can get a great barbecue with all the trimmings and you can take it to the lake, park, Sunken Gardens or home. Meals may be picked up between 3:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the station’s office.
As befits a modest person who doesn’t fall into self-pity, Christy would like her body to be used for researching a cure for ALS. She sees great promise in the fact that her doctors at the University of San Francisco are looking at stem cell research that may show promise.
And, with almost an unbelievable sense of grace, the Frenches have found life affirmation in Christy’s diagnosis.
“I get up and enjoy every moment of every day,” she explains. “Skip and I just want to soak it all up. Our family time has increased, as has being with friends. That’s always been a part of our lives, but now it’s more precious.”
“In that vein,” Skip adds, “it’s amazing how people have stepped up to help.”
“It’s overwhelming, the support we’re getting,” Christy said.
If you can’t get to the barbecue, but want to help ease the trials of a loving wife, mother, grandmother and 34-year teacher of our children, an account — No. 366471 — has been set up in Christy’s name at any Sesloc Credit Union.
Please be generous; I know I will.
Bill Morem can be reached at email@example.com or at 781-7852.