Gratitude

Ice Buckets and Braces

August 15th, 2014

Although it has been the coolest summer in recent memory for a large portion of the U.S., the internet has been flooded (pun intended) the last few weeks with videos of people pouring buckets of ice-cold water on themselves. The Wall Street Journal reports the origin of this viral internet phenomenon:

“The so-called ice-bucket challenge—dump ice water on yourself, post and tag yourself on social media and challenge others to do the same—got its start among golfers as a way to support pet charities.

In just a few weeks, it has become a major fundraising coup for patients and organizations with ALS, a neurodegenerative disorder. It is commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, after the baseball player who had it.” (1)

The article goes on to explain how social media transformed a dare between golfers into an incredible campaign to raise awareness for a terrible disease.

This viral phenomenon and the Wall Street Journal article got me thinking about my personal connection to ALS. In my first year of dental school, my parents dropped a bombshell on my siblings and me. My father had noticed that one of his feet wasn’t functioning properly when he walked and he thought it was a result of a tumble he took while on a hike with the scouts, so he went to see the doctor to make sure he hadn’t broken anything. After extensive testing, he was told that the fall hadn’t caused his foot problem, but rather his foot problem had likely caused the fall. He was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), an as yet incurable neurodegenerative disease that at the time was almost universally fatal in an average of two years from diagnosis.

What is horrific about this disease isn’t just that it is fatal, but that it steadily destroys coordination and muscular function, paralyzing its victims in stages until they can no longer perform even the most basic functions, including swallowing and breathing. In its excellent explanation of the degenerative stages of ALS, the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) explains that

“The vast majority of deaths in ALS are the result of respiratory failure, a process that progresses slowly over months. Medications can relieve discomfort, anxiety and fear caused by respiratory insufficiency.” (2)

I don’t know about you, but the idea of slowly, involuntarily suffocating while maintaining full mental acuity and consciousness, while also being completely powerless to improve is terrifying to me! And I clearly remember the absolute anguish and horror I felt at the prospect of watching someone I love so much suffer so horrifically. My heart goes out to those who struggle to live with ALS and the care givers who love them and sacrifice so much for them. Ultimately, through miracles performed by a merciful God, my father is still with us. His diagnosis has been changed by baffled doctors, although he has experienced some of the same symptoms over a longer period of time.

So, what do “Ice Bucket Challenges” and ALS have to do with braces? Excellent question. The answer is “perspective.” Every day I am blessed to help people overcome challenges like dysfunctional bites, poorly positioned teeth and jaw problems to improve the appearance and function of their smiles. However, when we take a moment to consider the suffering and challenges faced by others, frequently our challenges seem small. This is an orthodontic blog, but because of my personal brush with ALS, I couldn’t let the chance pass to remind myself how blessed I am to still have my dad. I couldn’t let the chance pass to express my gratitude that I have a body that functions properly; that I can choose to smile, and my facial muscles will perform as directed. I also couldn’t let the chance pass to put the Ice Bucket Challenge to its greatest use, to draw attention to and educate about the plight of approximately 30,000 Americans every year, of whom 80% will die in less than 5 years from a terrible disease. (3)

Today, I invite all my patients to join me in taking a moment to count their blessings. Then, join me in using the time, effort and money you could have spent performing your own social media “Ice Bucket Challenge” to advocate, participate, volunteer or donate to help those who suffer from ALS in our own community. I invite you to stay warm and dry, and check out ALS in the Heartland’s website (http://www.alsintheheartland.org/support-us/) for more information about what you and I can do to help our suffering neighbors smile a little brighter today.

1. Reddy, Sumathi “How the Ice-Bucket Challenge Got Its Start” The Wall Street Journal, Aug 14, 2014 (accessed online at http://online.wsj.com/articles/how-the-ice-bucket-challenge-got-its-start-1408049557)
2. (http://mda.org/disease/amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis/signs-and-symptoms/stages-of-als)
3. http://www.alsa.org/about-als/facts-you-should-know.html

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