Teaching the World About ALS

I went back home to Chicago this past December to help out the Chicago ALS Association with Shake the Can at Union Station, a very busy train station in the heart of the city. I stood with several other people to “shake the can” and raised a few thousand dollars for the ALS Association. But as I stood by the entrance to the trains, many people approached me and asked what ALS was. I was stunned. How could people not know about this disease? How was it possible that so many people around the world were battling this monster and there were so many others unaware of this suffering? This was UNACCEPTABLE. How could we end a disease if no one knew about it? I decided I needed to start teaching more people about ALS.

A few weeks later, I sat in bed and began thinking about how I could teach others about this disease. A painful memory ran continuously through my head.

It was October of 2011 and I was a first semester junior at IMSA. At this point in time, I was visiting Dr. McLaren at least once every day to make sure he was doing okay, ask him about his day, tell him about my day, etc. I usually visited him before my 7:55 AM classes. I would run down the hall and into his office, scream “HEY DR. MCLAREN!” and he would turn around in his chair to face me with a huge smile on his face.

This day was quite different. I was early for my Advanced Physics class and headed down the hall to Dr. McLaren’s office. I walked through his door and stopped. Dr. McLaren was choking. He had been drinking chocolate milk before I walked in and it had not gone down properly. As he fought to breathe, I stood in front of his desk, my body paralyzed. What do I do? I felt incredibly helpless as I noticed the fear in his eyes and heard his lungs grasping for air. Even when he regained composure minutes later, I remained terrified. I knew it would only get worse from here and desperately wanted to protect my friend from the future.

I started pacing around my bedroom and grew angry and annoyed. I really wanted to run around the Drake campus, grab each student by the shoulders and scream in their face about ALS. But this wasn’t possible. Every Drake student would think I was a complete psycho and I’d lose all of my friends. But how? How could I teach others about the disease? I desperately wanted to talk to every single person around the world.

I decided to focus on the younger generation first and what better place to start than my very own university? As soon as I got back to Drake for the spring semester, I visited a biology professor I really liked. I told him my plan and asked if I could speak to his microbiology lectures on ALS. He was a little hesitant. What if you don’t have a captive audience, Sarah? I don’t think they would be the right group to talk to. Do you think they would be very interested?

I was frustrated. It didn’t matter if the entire audience was interested! Even if I spoke to 100 students and 99 couldn’t care less about what I was saying, I had hope that at least 1 person would be incredibly fascinated by ALS. One more person ready to fight than there was before. And that makes all the difference. How did no one else see this? Unsatisfied with my biology professor’s answer, I headed straight to my neuroscience professor and he quickly said yes. I would be talking to not only one neuroscience class, but two! I was thrilled.

On the morning of my first ALS talk, I began to grow very nervous and worried. What if I completely forgot everything I knew about ALS? What if no one wanted to listen to me? What if the students didn’t want to learn about ALS? What was even the point of this? I was scared. I wanted Dr. McLaren to be here with me. I felt like I could take on any disease when I was with him. But this wasn’t possible. As I stood in front of the Drake neuroscience students, I closed my eyes. I looked deep into my heart and imagined Dr. McLaren’s courage, voice, and smile. I felt my fears subside and my mind relax. I knew I could do this. I opened my eyes, smiled, and began speaking to the class. I spoke about the disease, the ALS work I’ve been doing since I was 14, and my hope and plans for the future. And a few hours later, I finished my second ALS talk to an even bigger audience. Because of this, many more people became aware of the disease.

And this is just the beginning! I’ve been scheduling more and more talks. My plan is to teach people of all ages about the disease and the silent suffering of those battling ALS around us. With Dr. McLaren’s courage in my heart and a passion for fighting ALS flowing through my veins, I’m ready to inspire the world.

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