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This year, FirefighterAid had the privilege to assist Gary and Melissa Whipple with some ADA home renovations. Gary retired from the department 11 years ago, and Melissa is his absolutely charming wife. If you’re fortunate enough to know these two, then you know that they are a truly perfect couple. When you’re around them, they have this innate ability to make you feel at home and so comfortable in their presence. I felt this since the very first day when I met them and every day since. 


In 2016, Melissa started experiencing a minor limp after running a charity 5K. She thought that she may have pulled a calf muscle, so she tried massage therapy, chiropractic care, and many adventures in acupuncture. None of which was able to relieve her pain. So, she finally went to see her doctor. One doctor turned into many doctors. She likens it to taking a “Magical Medical Mystery Tour”. That mystery tour lasted a year and a half. Her limp morphed into foot drop causing her to drag it periodically. She also began to fall more often. She was prescribed a medical brace to wear on her right foot to hold it in the correct position. This meant, "bye-bye to cute shoes”, as Melissa says. She turned to using hiking sticks, various types of canes, and walkers to improve her mobility and balance. 


In February 2018, a year and a half after her first symptoms, Melissa was finally diagnosed with ALS. (ALS or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.) Why does it take so long for a diagnosis you may be thinking? Unfortunately, there is no single test to diagnose for ALS, only a lot of other tests to eliminate everything else. From the moment you are diagnosed with ALS, the disease starts robbing you of things and it never stops. It eventually takes your life. ALS is a horrible, horrible thief.  This is the part of the story where I had to face the reality and the weight of it all.


There is no current treatment or cure for ALS. Not even a little one that will buy us some more time with our sweet friend, Melissa. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The brain sends messages through the spinal cord to the muscles throughout your body which is how we move. ALS kills the brain's motor-neurons, which eliminates the ability to send messages to the muscles to direct them to move. 


I had to face the fact that if things don’t change and a cure or some treatment for the prolonging of this disease isn’t found, I will lose my new friend that I care for so deeply. We share this story with you to educate, raise awareness, and most of all… in hopes of a cure.  


You wouldn’t know by looking at her, but Melissa is one of the most fierce and outspoken little warriors I have ever met. She is one to fight, and you will never see her with a bad attitude, sitting alone by herself feeling like her life is happening to her. She knows that her life is hers, that she is in control and she has a say in it, even with an ALS diagnosis.

No two ALS patients experience the same journey. Here are some things that Melissa has taught me about ALS, and I think it’s important to share them with you. Some patients progress very quickly, while others progress more slowly. 90% of ALS patients die between 2-5 years after the first symptoms appear. 80% of ALS patients are male. 10% of patients have a “familial link” in which they have inherited a “defective” gene from an immediate relative. The remaining 90% have what is referred to as sporadic ALS meaning there is no clear identified cause, which is what Melissa has. About 30,000 people in the United States are currently suffering with ALS. 

This story isn't just about ALS and how horrible of a disease it is. It’s a story about new friendships, an amazing woman, her supportive husband, and the organization known as the Relief Association doing all the good things you would expect us to do in this situation. 


So back to the day that I showed up at their house to meet the Whipples for the first time to check in on the renovation. I had no idea I’d walk out of their house with two new forever friends. Over the course of 2 months, our team  generously donated their time and skills to rebuild a bathroom fit for our retired firefighter and his best gal. During this remodel, the very small bathroom could be accused of containing a few too many Captains and not enough space. Thanks to all our retired and skilled fire family volunteers: Ron Trafton, Scott Trafton, Mark Tex, Jerry Sadler, Don McKinney, and Mike Nuanes. A few Coronas may have been harmed in the making of this bathroom, but that is to be expected. 


So, what do abalone shells have to with any of this?! When the bathroom remodel was finally finished, the Whipples had a small gathering to thank all of the people who came together to work on their project. The theme of Melissa's bathroom is ocean and beach. From the beautiful tiles she picked out that look like ocean water to all the seashell accents, she did a phenomenal job designing her new space. Melissa gives extra special recognition to Susie Trafton who helped select all the beautiful bathroom fixtures, tile, and paint. When I finally saw the bathroom completely finished, a nesting set of abalone shells on a shelf caught my eye. They were so perfect and each one fit into the next as though mother nature had designed them to be found across different locations in the world, but to all come together as one in the end. 


As I looked at the nesting shells, I was reminded of a time three years previously when I was walking alone on the beach in Encinitas. On that walk I found what I believed was the world’s tiniest abalone shell. It was a bit smaller than a nickel and in perfect shape. I was so amazed that I even saw it, but I knew it was special and held onto it. After seeing those shells in Melissa’s bathroom, I knew the small one I had found years before was meant for her. A few weeks later I brought it to her in a tiny bag and left it for her on her counter in a card.

That tiny abalone shell made me really think about a lot of things, fate being one of them. It made me think about friends and the way people come into and leave your life, and ultimately how I will leave this life one day. I started to become very upset that I will potentially lose my new sweet friend, Melissa, someday. I cried. I said to her on the phone one day that I hated ALS and that it is a selfish monster. While she didn’t disagree with me, she said, “it’s not all bad, it brought you into my life." I cried some more. I didn’t understand it, here she is the one fighting this disease every day and she had something positive to say about it. This horrible demon of a disease that takes everything from you, even your smile. How could she find something positive to say about it? That’s when I realized all the things it can’t take from you. Thank you, Melissa Whipple, for being a pure ray of light that shines in my life.

To learn more, please reach out to The ALS Association of Greater San Diego, who provides wonderful support, mobility equipment, and sponsors wonderful events and outings for ALS patients, caregivers, and their families throughout San Diego County.