Apr 21 2009

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Stephen Hawkings’ disease?

Professor Stephen Hawkings is ill and in hospital.  He has been living with ALS for 40 years and one wonders if he is finally succumbing to it.  Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurological disease that affects motor neurons, the cells in the spinal cord that receive and transmit messages to the brain and back to the muscles.  These cells degenerate and die.  In the majority of cases, the cause is unknown.  ALS became widely recognised in the US when the famous baseballer named Lou Gehrig died from it.  It has since been called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the US.

Most people with ALS die within four years of the diagnosis.  The fact that Professor Hawkings is still living after 40 years is quite incredible.  One wonders if there was some protection conferred due to exercising of the mind and body.  Professor Hawkings has continued to live his life without allowing the disease to take over completely.  He has managed to accomplish quite a lot in the last forty years.  What has he done right?  What genetic predisposition has allowed him to last this long?  Perhaps, we will never know.

I knew of someone once who was diagnosed with ALS.  After four years had elapsed and he did not die as expected, he came to despair and questioned whether he had received the right diagnosis.  He and his family had made arrangements and I supposed they worried about the financial responsibilities if he did not die on time.  It was rather a sad tale.  On the other hand, I had a friend whose father died of ALS only six months after his diagnosis.  It happened so rapidly that despite all the preparations, it was still quite unexpected.  I think the two should have traded lives.

ALS is a devastating disease but we can all learn from Professor Hawkings’ example.  No matter how terrible the diagnosis, we should all try to continue living and learning.  Not just sit back and let the diagnosis take over control of our lives.  Perhaps, the disease should be renamed in honour of Professor Hawkings.