My ALS Story: Richard Kerns
Navy veteran Richard Kerns has not allowed the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, to weaken his spirit or his passions, including riding his 1992 Harley Davidson motorcycle with his beloved service dog, Duncan.
Since being diagnosed with ALS in early 2011, Richard’s friends and family along with the American Legion, helped raise money to purchase Duncan, and to accommodate Richard’s motorcycle to meet his needs.
“They made my Harley rideable again by fixing up an old side car and attaching it to the bike and installing an electric push button shift so I don’t have to use my feet,” Richard says. “The side car not only keeps the bike upright; it also gives my service dog, Duncan, a place to sit so he can ride with me.”
Richard joined the Navy during his senior year of high school in 1987 and later served on the USS Denver as part of an amphibious attack group as part of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in September of 1991.
But in June of 2010, while working as a welder, Richard started noticing cramping in his calf muscles and a slight weakness in his legs. “It was not unusual to become dehydrated and cramp due to the heat of my job,” he says. “I thought nothing of it.”
The weakness started worsening, however, so much so that in October 2010, while putting his Harley into the garage, Richard’s legs gave out, and his bike ended up on top of him. “That was when my wife said it was time to go to the doctor to see what was wrong with me,” he says.
After a couple months of testing at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Richard was diagnosed with ALS. It was only after a friend told him to get in touch with the Veterans Administration that Richard learned that his disease was considered service-connected with a 100 percent disability rating. His doctors later put Richard in touch with Mark Stever at Paralyzed Veterans of America’s office Wichita, Kansas.
“Mark is nothing short of an angel,” Richard says. “Within a few short weeks, Mark had set me up with the VA and got my benefits expedited. Mark Stever was right on top of everything, paperwork or whatever I needed. He also inspired me to join Paralyzed Veterans as a lifetime member.”
Thus far, the disease has progressed to where Richard is now in a wheelchair and can longer walk or stand. His upper body also is becoming weaker, but his speech and breathing have remained unaffected.
Richard credits his wife, Laurie, and his strong Christian faith as his greatest support in helping him get through the daily challenges of living with ALS. He also credits his friends and family as well as the American Legion. “Laurie is my rock,” he says. “If it were not for her, I might have just given up two years ago. I could not ask to be blessed with a more caring, loving wife.”
His service dog Duncan also has played a huge role in supporting Richard, doing everything from picking things up off the floor, turning lights on and off and passing the television remote.
“I would highly recommend a service dog to anyone with mobility issues,” Richard says. “Above all else, Duncan is my best friend who always understands when I’m having a bad day, when I’m upset or just generally hard to be with. Duncan does not care about that and is always by my side with unconditional love.”
Still, the daily challenges of living with ALS have not stopped Richard from enjoying each day. Besides riding his Harley with Duncan, he and Laurie have made a point to fulfill their dreams of traveling. Last year, they traveled to Normandy, France, to visit all five D-Day beaches and many other historical World War II sites. They recently returned from a 10-day trip to Italy where they visited Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and Pompeii.
“I will not give up,” Richard says. “I am happy for every day that I have.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.