|05-30-2005, 08:13 PM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2005
Location: Lexington, Kentucky
Lou Gehrig's Letters Reveal a Legend's Last Days (very poignant)
I found this article to be extremely poignant. Shows what a true warrior and what a great man Lou Gehrig was as he dealt with his disease as best as he knew how; by remaining optimistic and facing down his disease with the same unflinching courage that he displayed on the baseball field.
Lou Gehrig's Letters Reveal a Legend's Last Days'I Do Not Want to Be a Hero,' Yankee Slugger Wrote
By JONATHAN EIG, Staff Reporter, The Wall Street Journal
The first two letters were written by hand, in neat, sharply slanted script.
Later, the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- better known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- became too much to overcome. The man for whom the disease would be named began to rely on a typewriter in his correspondence with his doctor. When typing became too difficult, he began to dictate the letters, affixing his signature with a rubber stamp.
Lou Gehrig is baseball's tragic hero, struck down by disease in the prime of his career, and dead at the age of 37. On July 4, 1939, before 61,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, he offered the famous farewell in which he declared himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Mr. Gehrig lived for almost two years after that speech. Until recently, little had been known about that period of his life. Now, with the discovery of about 200 pages of personal letters between Mr. Gehrig and his doctor, Paul O'Leary, it's clear the Yankee first baseman was far from lucky.
The letters record the details of Mr. Gehrig's condition, his aches and pains, and his desperate efforts to find a cure. With his medical records permanently sealed, the letters stand as the only record of his dying days.
The letters also help complete a picture of a man who has been widely misunderstood. In his lifetime and in the six decades since his death, Mr. Gehrig has been portrayed as a wooden figure, a gentle giant who stared down fastballs and a deadly disease with the same quiet calm. But Mr. Gehrig was far more complex than his public image.
On the field, he was one of the greatest first basemen the game has ever seen, a powerful figure whose career spanned the Yankee dynasties of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Off the field, self-doubt dogged him. He lived with his parents until he was 30 and often invited his mother to accompany the Yankees on road trips. He cried in the dugout when he thought he had disappointed his manager. He had confidence in his physical powers and not much else.
As ALS took its grip and Mr. Gehrig's muscles melted away, however, he displayed new strength. In his most private moments, writing letters he must have assumed no one but his doctor would see, he showed the sort of courage that had for so long eluded him.
Mr. Gehrig was diagnosed in May 1939 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., shortly after ending his then-record streak of 2,130 consecutive games. It's not clear whether his doctors stated plainly that no one ever survived ALS. It's possible, some doctors and medical historians say, that Mr. Gehrig got the grim message but chose not to hear it. Mr. Gehrig mailed his first letter to Dr. O'Leary, his primary physician at Mayo, in July, about two weeks after making his farewell speech.
"I have gained 7 to 9 pounds...," he wrote. "Seem a little more secure on my legs and in general, feel great."
Soon thereafter, Mr. Gehrig underwent two experimental treatments, one involving vitamin E and one involving histamines. Neither slowed the course of his disease. But the letters reveal that Dr. O'Leary misled his patient by telling him repeatedly that his condition would likely worsen and then stabilize, giving him a fair chance of survival.
"Paul, I feel you can appreciate how much I despise the dark," Mr. Gehrig wrote to Dr. O'Leary. "But I also despise equally as much false illusions...I do not want to be a hero, and I would hate like hell to be a cry baby, but I would also like to know the facts...."
The doctor responded: "...I know by innuendos you have the impression that people do not arrest the progress of amyotophic lateral sclerosis." Then he mentioned a patient Mr. Gehrig recently met whose condition had vastly improved. Dr. O'Leary continued: "...and I trust that in seeing him you have been reassured that there is a damn good probability that you will do likewise."
In a letter written months later to Mr. Gehrig's wife, Eleanor, the doctor confessed that the patient in question suffered from a neurological disorder with some of the same symptoms, but it wasn't ALS.
Dr. O'Leary saved his famous patient's letters, as well as carbon copies of his own. After the doctor died, the collection was passed on. It was sold anonymously at auction in 1998 for about $50,000. Attempts to contact members of Dr. O'Leary's family were unsuccessful.
Since their sale, the letters have been kept in a safe by the purchaser, James W. Ancel, a Maryland construction company owner and collector of baseball memorabilia. They have never been published before and few knew of their existence.
Mr. Gehrig continued traveling with the Yankees throughout the 1939 season, and occasionally tried playing catch with a teammate. By the following spring, walking and dressing had become difficult. He took a job with the city of New York as a parole commissioner, but his wife often accompanied him to the office to help him open letters, light cigarettes and perform other routine tasks.
"My left thumb and middle finger both hang," he wrote Dr. O'Leary in March 1940, "and it is only with great effort that my left wrist does not continually sag. During these three nights my left leg (in bed) did considerable jumping. Then Saturday fibrillations quieted down, and today I feel pretty good again."
Several times in their correspondence, Mr. Gehrig asked Dr. O'Leary to repeat his assurances that ALS was beatable. Each time, Dr. O'Leary offered the patient a shot of hope.
"I do not know how I can answer you," the doctor wrote in April 1940, "other than to repeat...that you have a forty-five per cent chance... Accordingly, I urge that you keep pushing ahead and that you realize there will be days when you do not seem so good, but I am sure that such days will become of shorter duration and further apart."
Was Dr. O'Leary's behavior unethical? Actually, it was common practice then, says Laurence McCullough, professor of medicine and medical ethics at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"That would fit with the way physicians have traditionally given bad news," says Mr. McCullough, who has a doctorate in philosophy. All too often, doctors would break the news to a patient's spouse and let them decide whether to pass it along. "Doctors only recently have been taught how to give the news themselves," says Mr. McCullough.
Dr. O'Leary revealed a more accurate diagnosis in a letter to Mr. Gehrig's wife, Eleanor. "I do think that he must keep plugging and that we must keep our chins up in an effort to encourage him further," he wrote.
In her reply, Mrs. Gehrig wrote, "It must be very difficult for you to answer his last letter to you, and I feel we must all lie like mad. I want him to keep a thread of hope; there is no point in adding mental torture to the horrible experience he is now going through."
Two studies buoyed Mr. Gehrig's hopes. The first, conducted by a different doctor at the Mayo Clinic, involved injections of histamine. The short-lived experiment produced little of significance. Another study, by Dr. Israel Wechsler of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, offered more cause for optimism.
Dr. Wechsler was injecting patients, including Mr. Gehrig, with massive doses of vitamin E. Even today, many doctors believe that the vitamin might be of use in treating ALS patients, but no one has been able to prove it.
Dr. Wechsler thought he had solved the puzzle. After a few weeks of treatment, he reported an improvement in Mr. Gehrig: a tiny movement of the thumb. It was the smallest of signs, yet Mr. Gehrig was thrilled. "This may sound ridiculous," he wrote to Dr. O'Leary in regard to the thumb, "but I know you can appreciate how important it is to me... ." The optimism receded when it became increasingly clear that his condition wasn't improving. In the last few letters before his death, Mr. Gehrig rarely mentioned his condition. Instead, he asked the doctor for advice on behalf of friends suffering minor maladies. He asked for a prescription to treat a rash on his wife's face. Even as his weight plummeted and he became too weak to rise from bed, he continued to greet friends and former teammates at his home in New York City.
"As for myself," he wrote to Dr. O'Leary in January of 1941, in one of his final letters, "it is getting a little more difficult each day and it will be hard to say how much longer I can carry on...I don't mean to be pessimistic but one cannot help wonder how much further this thing can go and I wish you would again drop a note as to your thoughts and percentage of making a proportional recovery. I also understand how difficult this is."
In the same letter, he wrote:
"Don't think that I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That's all we can do."
He died five months later, on June 2, 1941.
Last edited by WMR; 05-30-2005 at 08:16 PM.
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