by Larry Stogner
photograph by Alex Boerner
The words hit me like a punch to the gut. “You have ALS.” Wait, what? Your mind spins. Wheelchair. Ventilator. Feeding tube. Death. A most unpleasant scenario.
Having just signed a new contract, I had been all set to anchor ABC 11 Eyewitness News for another three years. But there was this “voice thing” I had detected last summer. Words and phrases that had come easily for 40 years…were becoming difficult…a little slurred…and slow.
When an MRI showed no brain tumor or mini-stroke, I figured whatever was affecting my speech was not serious. My neurologist then ordered an EMG, a test involving needles and electrodes in the throat and even my forehead. It measures how quickly, if at all, neurons are firing into muscles, making them do what muscles do…including those in the tongue and larynx.
And that’s where they found the problem – neurons and muscles that had controlled my speech on air so well for four decades – were breaking down. And oh by the way, it would spread – to my arms and legs and eventually end my ability to swallow and even breathe on my own.
The following day I met with News Director Rob Elmore and President-General Manager Caroline Welch. I opened by just saying it: “I have ALS.” All the air was sucked right out of the room. They had convinced themselves this was something minor, something that could be fixed. Now they found themselves speechless, contemplating one of the most dreadful of all diseases.
But serious issues had to be dealt with. How would I pull the plug on the longest TV anchor gig ever in this part of the state or the entire southeast? We were stuck between station managers wanting to give me a proper sendoff and me preferring to end it quickly. A compromise we worked out allowed me to explain the ALS diagnosis at the end of the Friday 6 p.m. newscast, that this would be my final show, but that I’d return in two weeks for a special broadcast to say my goodbyes properly. And that would give the station time to put together some career highlights and a few surprises.
In that two weeks I began spiraling into a deep depression. Initially I got the diagnosis of bulbar palsy, a neurological disease that begins in the voice and can become ALS. I prayed and dared to hope maybe they were wrong, and maybe I won’t be one of the few who doesn’t get ALS…maybe…maybe…maybe. The following week, when my wife, Bobbi, and I had our first appointment at the Duke ALS Clinic, all the “maybes” were tossed aside. Its director, Dr. Richard Bedlack, said it was definitely full-blown ALS.
There is no cure for this disease, named for Yankee great Lou Gehrig. I knew that when I took part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in the summer. In fact, I had known that for many years, hosting our station’s annual Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. I had interviewed, or tried to interview, a number of ALS patients over several decades. Few went well. And I remember thinking to myself – “Man, I’m so glad I’m not that guy.”
Now I am that guy. At least I will be…in time. And it’s the part that’s so hard to get my mind around. That I can walk, run, drive, brush my teeth, play golf, or use my laptop seems totally normal to me. Yet I know I’m on borrowed time. Muscle by muscle, this thing’s gonna get me.
I tried to put those thoughts aside during a week of tributes and stories ABC 11 put together about my career. Stories of me running on the Great Wall with former Governor Jim Hunt, walking through the Capitol with the late Senator Jesse Helms, flying an F-16 with the Thunderbirds, interviewing President Obama in the White House, getting hostile glares as I walked through the streets of Kandahar, or on my return trip to Vietnam, playing with the deformed children of peasants who were sprayed with Agent Orange. Even I have to admit – I had a hell of a ride over those four decades, getting paid to do something I utterly enjoyed. Something I feel I was born to do. And that’s why in my final farewell at the end of my last newscast I thanked viewers for the privilege of coming into their homes night after night for so many years.
I never imagined my announcement about having ALS would go viral on social media and the internet. I’ve received emails and letters from as far away as Australia, France, and Poland, all telling me to stand strong. Fight the good fight. And many sent up prayers for my family and me as we enter this strange, dark chapter of our lives. I will need them all.
Here at home, I’ve been awed by the outpouring of love and support from colleagues, friends, and viewers. How many people ever get to hear what they have meant to others, most of whom they’ve never met? People who have become family. People who can’t remember a time when I didn’t anchor the 6 p.m. news. People who grew up having me in their home for dinner every evening. If nothing else, it’s incredibly humbling.
In a rare bit of foxhole humor I told Bobbi: “Hearing all this love from so many people isn’t worth dying for. But it’s close.”