Veteran grapples with Lou Gehrig's disease - abc27 WHTM

Veteran grapples with Lou Gehrig's disease

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Trapped like a prisoner of war physically, many veterans are increasingly fighting an enemy that doctors say cannot be beat.

You cannot hear Don Farrell, but you can see him speaking with his eyes. The 53-year-old types with his eyes letter by letter and talks through his augmentative communicator computer.

A digitized female voice uttered, "I can type text and speak this way. Channel 27 News rocks!"

Laughs are heard throughout the room. Farrell's wit and mind are sharp as ever, but his body continues to deteriorate. In 2011, Farrell was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

His wife, Joan, explains every day can be a struggle.

"Some days it is draining," she said. "It's all Don can do to get up and get dressed and get from the bed to his chair."

ALS slowly robs a person's physical strength while their mental capacity remains the same. Farrell no longer has full mobility of his arms and legs and needs assistance for most daily functions.

Joan said doctors are unable to fully explain why her husband was diagnosed with this incurable disease. Many point to his time in the military. Farrell served in the United States Air Force from 1979 to 1984.

"So many different angles, so many different things that it could be ... that it's going to be a lot of research to figure this out," Joan said.

In 2008, the Department of Veteran Affairs recognized ALS as a service-related injury or illness. The Department of Defense has since allocated roughly $8 million in annual funding for research and care for vets with ALS.

The government has reported that veterans have twice the probability to be diagnosed with ALS than those who never served. Currently, there are about 30,000 people in the country battling this disease. About 1,000 are in Pennsylvania.

According to the national ALS Association website, ALS has a life expectancy from two to five years with only 10 percent living more than 10 years.

Farrell never stopped living.

The talented tenor may have lost his golden voice, but not his gift of the creative word. Farrell authored "The Little Book of Life – Insight by a Terminal Patient," while overlooking the rolling hills in Lancaster County. Farrell said writing gives him a creative outlet and a chance to express his emotions.

Farrell never shies from connecting with others with ALS, especially veterans. The Mount Joy resident shares his experiences and feelings on a blog, helping others cope. He and Joan work closely with the ALS Association's Greater Philadelphia Chapter to raise awareness. On Friday, both will speak at the annual luncheon in Philadelphia about veterans with ALS.

Since being diagnosed, Farrell has starred down ALS instead of being afraid of what looms to be. Joan said they have traveled to foreign countries together prior to the disease's regression.

With love from his family and his cat, Trouble, Farrell said he couldn't have a more fulfilled life.

Although his Air Force days may be connected to his diagnosis, Farrell never once regrets protecting our country, ultimately sacrificing self for service.

"I am still very honored and proud to have served in the Air Force," he said.


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