Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pushing the MS limits 100 feet underground

So there I was, on my back, slinking feet first through a hole just 10 inches high. I call ahead to the guide. “There isn’t some crazy abyss on the other side, is there?” After all, I could only see rock inches away from my face, as I had to tilt my helmeted head to the side to make the tight squeeze. His response was not comforting. 

“Actually there is, so you’ll want to place your feet exactly where I tell you, then mantle across to the rock saddle that bisects the drop-off, and carefully scootch across on your rear.” 

Perfect. 100 feet underground in South Dakota’s Wind Cave on the park’s ”wild cave tour” in the summer of 2007 with eight other gullible souls, none of whom had multiple sclerosis like me. Despite the 53 degree temps, the four-hour tour had fired up my vision issues and my right leg was getting sketchy. AND I HAD TO SLINK ACROSS A NARROW SLIVER OF ROCK OVER AN ABYSS? I could already see the headline. “Founder of MS Nonprofit Dies in Cave Accident; Guy had it Coming.” 

I debated my options. Try. Or die trying. While most of the cave was relatively easy to navigate, with lots of handholds and crawling, this was the final of three challenging sections. So I turned off my brain, tried not to stress, and focused on the task at hand: not dying. As you can tell since you are reading this, I was successful. The rest of tour was cake, except that the fright of the abyss and frequent stooping knocked my legs out. I could crawl, but walking was a major chore for the last hour and I eagerly looked forward to every little break. 

Would I recommend it to other MSers? You better be in great shape. And not have a fear of heights. And enjoy getting into literally tight situations!  

Originally published August 17, 2007. Edited for clarity.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Suicide, multiple sclerosis, and the loss of a best friend

Let’s start with some facts on this serious topic. Just having multiple sclerosis increases your risk of suicide, according to one study, a sobering seven fold. Even among those with other neurologic disorders—including ALS, which is often fatal—the risk for MSers is still double. Male, under 30, and recently diagnosed (within five years) amplify your risk. But why?

Researchers aren’t entirely sure. People with MS are predisposed to get depression and it is a hallmark of MS, as half of us with the disease will struggle with depression at some point during our lives… yet it often goes unreported and untreated. And the consequences of depression can be devastating.

Five years ago I lost one of my closest friends to suicide. Ironically, Brandon was a major lifeline when I was trying to cope with getting diagnosed. Giving his eulogy was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’d like to share what I wrote.


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Brandon Lynn Crotty passed away June 27, 2006. He was 36. Born December 27, 1969 in Wichita, Kansas, Brandon grew up there and graduated from Wichita State University before starting his career in pharmaceuticals sales. He moved to Albuquerque in 2000, most recently becoming one of his company’s top sales representatives worldwide. An aficionado of classical music and jazz, Brandon was equally as fond of a good, bump-drafting NASCAR race. An avid cyclist, skier, and artist, he was most at peace in his studio, paintbrush in hand, the symphonies of Mahler softly echoing off the walls. His uniquely sharp wit, intelligent repartee, and unabashed enthusiasm for living life to its fullest will be forever missed. Brandon is survived by his parents Ronald and Carlyne Crotty of Placitas, NM; grandmother Leona Crotty of Garden City, KS; and wife Amy of Albuquerque.

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Before I begin my personal remarks, I have a request of all of you. Whenever you think about Brandon Crotty, please avoid two words. “What if.”

I will say with absolute conviction that Brandon’s passing was not written in his life’s script. His demons, on that particular night at that particular time, were too strong, too overwhelming. I personally believe that no amount of what ifs would have stopped those demons. And now, no amount of what ifs will bring Brandon back. No amount of what ifs will lessen the pain. So I implore all of you to purge those thoughts. Replace every “what if” with an “I remember”.

I remember when I first met Brandon. He really didn’t pay much attention to me at first. He gravitated, instead, to my stereo speakers. He was an audiophile, after all. But by the end of the night, I knew, I just knew, that we were going to be the closest of friends.

I remember how he introduced me to jazz. Like he has done with many a friend before me, he gave me a CD—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. He told me how excited he was for me. How he wished he could once again experience the simple joy of discovering the magic of John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, and Thelonious Monk for the first time. Later, he went through his entire jazz collection and wrote down a list of his favorite albums. Albums that he thought should be the anchor of my collection. That handwritten list, safely folded in my wallet, goes with me everywhere. And it always will.

I remember how he introduced me to some of the other finer things in life. NASCAR … The Sopranos … obnoxiously loud ski outfits.

I remember when I went down my first double black diamond ski run at Wolf Creek. Brandon was right next to me. For better or for worse, we were going down together. 

I remember how we talked about his art. How determined he was that his next career would be that of a painter.

I remember when he told me, excitedly, that his parents were moving to town. How great it was to have his mom and dad so close by.

And I remember how it was Brandon who reached out and helped me when I was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was the first friend to pull me out of the house for something other than a doctor’s appointment. He listened. He cared. And he told me everything was going to be okay.

I remember it all. And I’ll never forget.

When we spoke last—a week ago today—I thanked Brandon for his help with my MS and let him know just how much that meant to me. He proudly told me he would ride his bicycle with my name on his jersey for an MS fundraiser this August. He was excited about his latest works of art, all in various stages of progress, impatiently drying. He was eager, genuinely eager, to tackle new challenges and continue living life to its fullest.

No, this final chapter was not supposed to be your destiny, Brandon.
 
You’ve changed my life … you’ve made me a better man. And in your own way, you’ve changed the lives of everyone you’ve crossed paths with. We all thank you, Brandon. You’ll be missed by your family, your friends, and your colleagues more than even your brilliant mind would ever be able to comprehend.

Today we say so long, Brandon. But we'll always remember.

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Those thoughts of ending your own life can unpredictably invade your brain on even your best days—it happens to many of us with this disease. But if those thoughts are not fleeting, I ask that you please, please get help. Call your local suicide prevention hotline. In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.