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FALKLAND, BC — The bearded giant of a man glided through the warm
November fog in his new Caddy convertible. His arm hung out the window
as he and a business partner headed for a cattle sale near Kitchener,
His muscular physique had, seemingly, been destined for a football
career and he even coveted a lengthy time in wrestling. There was also a
definite sparkle in his eyes, for he’d found true romance.
Following the cattle sale, the Giant and his friend retired to a pub
and cooled off with a half dozen beers. A smile continually spread
across his face.
In the hours that followed, he noticed a sharp pain searing through
his left shoulder. The Giant shook it off for he’d had much more severe
pain on the playing field. However, overnight, his life changed forever.
The pain intensified. His friends convinced him liquor would soothe
the ache that now spread throughout his body. The booze didn’t help as
he poured quarts down his throat.
With him lapsing into a semi-conscious state, a hospital ambulance
was summoned; however, with so much liquor in his body, his doctor was
livid and it took an entire weekend for the effects of the liquor to
The series of tests followed with biopsies, spinal taps and prodding
of his semi-conscious body and suddenly he started dropping weight from
270 to below 200 pounds. His frailness became noticeable to his friends
and family in Hamilton General Hospital.
Soon his hands and arms were paralyzed and all muscle tone
disappeared. Some thought it was Lou Gehrig’s Disease — amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis — named after the magnificent Yankee teammate of Babe
Ruth. The great Iron Horse lost his skills in dramatic fashion in 1939
as old-time New York sportswriter Joe Williams noted: “We could almost
hear his bones creak.”
However, the Giant’s doctor ruled it as “just a virus,” even though
he had no movement in his hands and depended even on others to assist
him in opening a door or turning a TV knob. Over the period of a year,
he was able to function again and he returned to his newspaper career,
although his athletic career faded. It was years later that I was
diagnosed to having Guilliame Barre’ syndrome. Dealing with it has been
a struggle; however, it’s another disease that seems incurable like Lou
Gehrig’s Disease that has taken so many lives of young and aspiring
Such related illnesses are often associated with playing on
contaminated surfaces, such as chemical dumps. I know I have.
Take for instance, three players from the 1964 San Francisco
Forty-Niners, who were diagnosed as having ALS. Running back Gary Lewis
and Matt Hazeltine died in 1987 while quarterback Bob Waters also was
felled by it. Waters later went on to be head coach at Western Carolina
Was it drugs? Was it the environment? Was it something sprayed on the
practice field that triggered a breakdown in the body’s immune system?
Was it coincidence?
The questions after all these years still go unanswered.
A skilled linebacker friend of mine, who played on a chemical dump in
the Toronto area throughout his career, diagnosed the problem just
before he died of ALS. “It was the playing surface,” the unidentified
athlete, we’ll call him Sam, told me. It was tragic as he faded into a
frail, old man. Although only in his late 20s, Sam appeared as being in
his late 80s.
ALS Canada has sent Dr. Donald McLachlan, a University of Toronto
research neurologist, to Guam on several occasions to uncover a clue to
the enigmatic killer, for on the U.S. Pacific island the incidences are
100 times greater than the norm. In the late 1980s, the disease struck
3,500 Americans — two out of every 100,000 Americans — annually.
Dr. McLachlan also had been probing into the relationship between
Alzheimer’s Disease and ALS, for he has noticed similarities,
particularly in the concentration of aluminum, during autopsies on the
brains of the victims of the two diseases.
There’s another peculiar aspect to ALS, notably in Canada, in that
the incidences are greater in three separate pockets: one in Nova
Scotia, one in British Columbia and in the Windsor-Essex areas of
“They done an environmental study in the Windsor area,” said ALS
spokesman, Jack Muirhead. “There could be an increase in ALS incidences
because of the steel mills of Detroit, or on the Detroit River, or even
the stuff they spray on the land, for it is an agricultural area.”
ALS turned Muirhead from a coordinator of train services for the
Canadian National Rail to a man who had to use one cane, then two canes,
and then a wheeled walker and then a disability retirement pension. “I
won’t give in,” he said. “I probably should be in a wheelchair, but. …
” he gritted his teeth, in explaining his determination.
Others that have been devastated by ALS include star offensive
lineman Jim Coode of the defunct Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL, who was
struck down by ALS at the height of his career.
However, not only athletes have been struck down, but distinguished
actors such as the late David Niven. In the last few years of his life,
Niven was a far cry from the dashing and energetic man who graced the
movie screens and who was the author of a number of best-selling novels.
ALS took an insidious toll of Niven’s body, taking the use of his voice
box, with Rich Little dubbing in Niven’s unmistakable and distinguished
It seems ALS has no cure and its victims are fated to die an early
As for Guillaime Barre’, it has no known cure, but its victims
usually live productive lives. It has lingering effects, for each
morning I wake up with numbness in my hands, arms and legs and my
muscles have weakened a once strong man.