My ALS Story: Frank Gabrielli
Despite living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease and a number of other health challenges, Army veteran Frank Gabrielli not only remains a pillar of strength for his family but for all families coping with an ALS diagnosis.
Since Frank’s diagnosis of ALS in 2011, he and his family have organized fundraisers for ALS research, expanded public awareness about the disease and traveled to Washington, DC to urge politicians to fund ALS research – all of which have given the family a sense of empowerment in the face of adversity.
“We came home from D.C. with new attitudes,” says Frank’s wife, Mary. “Instead of asking, ‘why me,’ we decided to become advocates and ask what we can do to help.”
Frank’s military service dates back to 1961, when he enlisted in the Army after graduating from West Catholic High School in Philadelphia. After serving two years as an electronics technician, Frank began working as an assistant manager for Allegheny Airlines, and in 1973 started a business that he ran for 38 years.
But in 1993, at the age of 49, Frank started having several health problems, including severe spinal stenosis, diabetes, pancreatitis and heart problems. In 2008, he started noticing a drop in his foot and an unsteady gait, after which the doctors recommended back surgery. But six months after undergoing the surgery, Frank showed no improvement. In 2011, after more rounds of testing, Frank was diagnosed with ALS.
The diagnosis left the “entire family in devastation,” Mary says.
Shortly after the diagnosis, Frank and his entire family – his wife, five daughters and nine grandchildren – went on a nine-day cruise in hopes of clearing their minds and learning to cope with the news, Mary says.
It was after the cruise that the family began its advocacy for funding for ALS patient care and research. In August 2012, the family worked with close friend Martino Cartier to organize an ALS fundraiser that raised $13,000 in just three hours. At that point, there was “less crying and more coping,” Mary says.
But a few short months later, Frank was outside retrieving the mail when he fell out of his wheelchair and was unresponsive. The family later learned that he suffered from a stroke and cardiac arrest, and after spending 47 days in three different hospitals, Frank returned home, now with the requirement of a ventilator to enable his breathing. His memory is totally intact, Mary says.
“It was very difficult to adjust to losing him to ALS, but to think that his life was going to be cut even shorter because of an accident was unbearable,” Mary says. “He continues to progress with this horrific disease of ALS, but we feel that God has given him back to us even if it is only for a short time.”
The family also remains grateful for the benefits from the Veterans Administration, which in 2008 began recognizing ALS as a 100-percent service-connected disease, and to Paralyzed Veterans of America for helping them navigate the entire benefits process.
“Paralyzed Veterans has been a great help to us, informing Frank of the benefits he was entitled to,” Mary says. “I feel that God knew what was in store for Frank and put the Paralyzed Veterans in our lives to speed his benefits along before his accident happened and destroyed the little control he had left to handle affairs like this.”
And despite the enormous emotional and financial burdens the disease has placed on the family, each is grateful for the perspective the disease has brought them – to stay strong, serve others and never take time for granted.
“I have learned to live one day at a time and sometimes an hour or a minute at a time,” Mary says. “I am forever grateful that God has allowed me to have Frank back, no matter how short the time may be. We will take what God gives us and be thankful.”
Update: Sadly, we have learned from Frank's wife that he passed away August 2013. Thank you for your service, Frank.
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.