My ALS Story: Gary Spurlin
While amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, has weakened the muscles of Army veteran Gary Spurlin, there is one area the disease will never weaken -- his spirit.
In 1969, at just 17 years old, Gary so badly wanted to serve his country that he begged his father to allow him to enlist in the Army, even though it meant dropping out of school. His father agreed, on the condition that Gary would learn a skill or trade that would help him upon his return to civilian life. After receiving training in communications and attending signal school, Gary deployed to Vietnam to assist the special forces teams with communications in the training and preparedness of the troops.
Upon returning from Vietnam, Gary completed his service in the National Guard while also beginning a career in law enforcement. “This was an easy move for me, as it was really nothing more than a transition from a military environment to a para-military environment,” he says.
But in 2008, Gary started to notice an overall weakness in his limbs, primarily in his right leg. At the time, he drove a truck and began having trouble applying pressure to the breaks, so much so that he insisted a mechanic test the brakes.
The mechanic “jokingly suggested that maybe I have myself examined,” Gary says. “At the time, I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and passed it off as one of those mechanical type things that would reveal itself in time.”
But the muscle weakness continued, and Gary found it more and more difficult to keep up with his active lifestyle, including his karate training, lifting weights and playing football. His family doctor referred him to a neurologist, and after undergoing several tests and MRIs, Gary was diagnosed with ALS in January 2010.
“We then began looking at what we could do as far as treatment was concerned,” Gary says. “We soon found out that very little advancements in the way of treatment had come about since the disease became better known after Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with it back in the 1940s.”
It was during this period of research, however, that Gary discovered that ALS was a service-connected disease and opted to contact Paralyzed Veterans of America to help him submit his application for benefits.
“I truly am so grateful that Paralyzed Veterans exists and is available to folks like myself who find themselves in similar overwhelming types of situations,” Gary says. “I was so impressed by the altruistic attitude of this organization and how they approached obtaining the benefits needed by their members and their families. All the Paralyzed Veterans personnel associated with my case have been nothing short of outstanding.”
Despite the challenges associated with ALS, Gary maintains a positive attitude and a strong Christian faith. He credits his family, particularly his wife, his friends, and his hospice team, which he refers to as his “special forces unit.” He also speaks proudly of his three children and five grandchildren.
“I’m certainly not going to paint a picture of doom and gloom, as my faith in the Lord will not allow me to do so in good conscience,” Gary says. “Whatever limitations and challenges that come my way in the future will never be more than the good Lord knows that I will be able to handle.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.