I’m going to visit Dr. McLaren next week and in honor of this visit, I want to share a story.
During the first semester of my junior year at IMSA, I grew very close to Dr. McLaren. I visited him once or twice each day to talk with him about life, left him positive quotes or notes on his desk, called his office to tell him to have a good day when I was sick at home, and more. It was an extremely stressful first semester for me, but with Dr. McLaren’s help, I was able to get through it. The day I left IMSA for winter break, I stopped by Dr. McLaren’s office. He was standing in the hallway by the door to his office with his arms hanging limply in front of him.
“HEYYYY DUDDEEEEEE!” I happily yelled with a big smile on my face. Dr. McLaren gave me the usual look that meant he thought I was being weird and smiled weakly. He looked exhausted. “I just wanted to say see yahhh later and I hope you have an absolutely AHHHHMAZING Christmas and New Year’s and everything else with your family!” I said a little too loudly. Dr. McLaren was so tired and weak. He grinned again and said, “Thanks, Sarah!” He looked like he wanted to say something more, but couldn’t find the strength to do so.
I could see the pain in his eyes as he looked at me. I so badly wanted to give him a big hug, but decided against it. With a giant wave goodbye, I headed down the hall to the main door and he went back into his office.
Christmas break passed by smoothly and it was soon time to travel back to IMSA for second semester. I was extremely excited to see my friends and Dr. McLaren. On the first day of classes, I ran by Dr. McLaren’s office to bother him as usual, but was greeted by a closed door and dark office windows. For the first time ever, Dr. McLaren was not here to turn around in his chair to greet me with a big smile on his face. I sadly gazed at the dark office windows and then walked off to my next class.
The next day, I rushed to Dr. McLaren’s office after my German presentation, hoping to share with him all the great things that were going on, but was disappointed once again. The windows were still dark and his office door was still closed. I frowned, but had hope that he would be at school the next day. I kept going back to his office for a week straight after that, but was greeted by an empty office each time.
My heart sank as I realized Dr. McLaren was never coming back to IMSA.
My fears were confirmed a few nights later when I was given news that he was going into surgery in Ohio to have the diaphragm pacing system implanted. I was stunned. For a while, I had forgotten that he even had ALS. We never focused on the disease. Dr. McLaren was not defined by ALS to me. It was simply a disease he was bravely living with each day.
A few days passed and I was doing homework in my room when I discovered from Dr. McLaren’s wife that his surgery did not go very well. He was now fighting a collapsed lung and a bacterial infection and would be hospitalized for a long time. My heart stopped. A million questions quickly raced through my mind. What if Dr. McLaren can’t make it through this? Was he okay? How much pain was he in? Why was this happening to Dr. McLaren? How could I help him?
My roommate was off campus, so I was in my room alone. I was so shaken up by this news of my friend that I fell to the floor and started crying. I was now starting to see the real effects of this terrible disease on Dr. McLaren. I imagined him lying helplessly in a hospital bed hundreds of miles away. I thought about the huge smile on his face when I gave him a birthday card that I got everyone in the school to sign. I remembered the day Dr. McLaren admitted to me that he was aware of what was coming in the future, but knew he had to stay focused on the present. I threw a nearby shoe at the wall. Why couldn’t I do anything to save Dr. McLaren from this disease?
I eventually stopped crying and got up from the floor. I looked at my bed that was covered with folders, homework assignments, and my laptop. Notes from my ALS research at the University of Illinois at Chicago were everywhere and the new neuroscience textbook that my mother had bought me was opened up to a giant diagram of the brain. I smiled weakly. Even though I would never be able to save Dr. McLaren, I could still work hard and focus on my research to make sure no one else around the world would suffer from ALS. I grabbed a picture off the wall that Dr. McLaren and I had taken the previous year and held it close to me as I continued studying, his courage and wisdom strengthening my heart and my passion for fighting ALS.