In the summer of 2011, when I was 46, I received the kind of news we all dread. The progressive muscle twitching I had experienced for the previous 18 months was diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the devastating and fatal condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
During the days that followed my diagnosis, my wife, Suzanne, and I mourned the part of our lives that had been taken from us — seeing our children, Abby and Patrick, get married, experiencing the birth of our grandchildren and growing old together. We focused on the awful journey that lay ahead and spent our time preparing for my death.
We learned that ALS is not a kind disease. It attacks the muscles in your body, causing you slowly to lose the use of your hands and arms, your ability to walk and speak and eventually the ability to eat and then breathe. All of this occurs with no cognitive impairment, meaning you remain fully aware of your circumstances, which is why ALS often is referred to as the “glass coffin.”
Not only is there no cure for the disease, but there is no effective treatment. Approximately 30,000 Americans live with ALS today, and most die within three to five years of being diagnosed.
Not many people know what it’s like to be told that you’re going to die and that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it. It makes you feel cruelly singled out in a way few can understand. Because I never had met anyone who had ALS, I quickly developed an overwhelming urge to learn more about Lou Gehrig.
There is not enough space here to list all of Gehrig’s accomplishments as a baseball player. Nicknamed the “Iron Horse,” Gehrig played first base for the New York Yankees for 16 years, won six World Series championships, appeared in seven All-Star Games, hit 23 career grand slams, and, most notably, played 2,130 consecutive games (a record that held until Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995). Most would agree, however, that Gehrig’s true legacy was forged when he stepped to the microphones in front of a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, and publicly acknowledged the disease that would claim his life.
During what is arguably the most famous speech in sports history, Gehrig told the crowd that although he had been given a “bad break,” he still considered himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” He said these words even though he knew his career was over, his life had been cut short, and his physical decline would continue. He would die two years later.
On July 4, we will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s historic speech. Although his courage and grace on this day are well established, I was most struck by his profound expression of gratitude.
I have found that most people have never heard the rest of Gehrig’s speech. He went on to explain that he felt like “the luckiest man” because of certain people in his life. He credited his wife, parents, teammates, managers, fans, opposing players, the groundskeepers and ushers at Yankee Stadium — even his mother-in-law! At a moment when many people would have basked in their own professional accomplishments to mark the end of a stellar career, Gehrig instead chose to use the occasion to show gratitude for how certain people had enriched his life.
This remarkable display of appreciation had a powerful effect on my wife and me after my diagnosis. After struggling for several weeks, we grew weary of the constant focus on our losses. We began to wrestle our minds away from the depressing thoughts and, instead of focusing on what had been taken from us, we made the choice to face the next chapter of our lives from a position of gratitude, appreciating what we still had — two healthy children, a strong marriage and a fantastic circle of family and friends.
There is evidence that gratitude can have measurable benefits, such as higher levels of personal satisfaction, increased happiness and feeling more optimistic about the world and what it has to offer. I would add that gratitude also makes us more likely to help others. In my experience, when you make a conscious choice to appreciate all that you have, big and small, and acknowledge the help you received along the way, something that has become all too rare, you become more likely to help others who may not be as fortunate as you.
This certainly has been the case for our family. We have been so touched by the outpouring of support since my diagnosis that we felt the need to help other families facing this challenging disease. With the mighty Gehrig as our inspiration, we decided to “Live Like Lou” and formed an organization with that name to increase awareness of ALS, raise funds for patient care and support research targeted at finding a cure.
As part of our effort to raise awareness we started a special project called “A Journey of Strength — the Progression of ALS Over Time.” We asked Pittsburgh photographer Duane Rieder to photograph me periodically to show the world the impact this disease has on a body. In these photos, I am wearing T-shirts from different organizations that have had a significant impact on my life. Like Gehrig, I want to express my sincere thanks for the help I have received along the way.
We have found that applying our gratitude in these different ways has resulted in the greatest reward of all for our family. And now, despite the difficult journey we are facing, we regularly feel like the luckiest family on the face of the Earth.
Seventy-five years after Gehrig’s voice echoed through the loudspeakers at Yankee Stadium, his declaration of being the “luckiest man” still serves as a shining example. The practice of gratitude allows you to celebrate what is good and right about the world, even under the most challenging circumstances. There is so much to be grateful for — if you’re looking.
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Neil Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Los Angeles police officer. He and Suzanne moved to the Pittsburgh area in 1992 after making a two-year study of the best places to raise a family. They and their two children live in O’Hara. Neil, who has a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh, is a former executive at Hefren-Tillotson and currently sits on its board of directors. Besides founding LiveLikeLou.org with his wife, he is a regular speaker at corporate, private and community events regarding gratitude and the challenges of facing a serious health crisis.