One Life to Live

He says that his father told him he was always a good faller, with experience from when he was a little kid in youth soccer.

“I fall really well,” Corey says.

And the smile and glimmer make his joke funny, even though it is not funny at all. It is terrifying. His friend Neil Rothenberg, Piedmont’s head tennis coach, was there for a fall once, heard the sickening sound of Corey’s head smacking the pavement outside the tennis courts where they coach together, and described it as nauseating.

Still, nobody is surprised by these occurrences. What’s maybe surprising is that he is still walking at all. Or that he never complains. His mother will suddenly notice, some days, that he has begun compensating for the loss of yet another muscle or motor skill that the rest of us take for granted. Adapting but not announcing.

Four years ago, doctors told Corey Reich that he had a fatal disease in which the average lifespan after diagnosis is between two and five years.

He was 21 and about to begin his senior year in college.

 

It seems only appropriate to have begun this story with a baseball anecdote. After all, baseball is the main association people have with this disease—a disease some know of by its initials, but almost certainly not by its full name. Even Corey didn’t know what the A stood for in the year after he was first diagnosed with ALS. More likely, people simply refer to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as the disease belonging to the great Yankee hitter Lou Gehrig, a pillar of endurance who once held the record for most consecutive games played, until he could no longer play because of the onset of this debilitating disease and death sentence.

Gehrig’s famous farewell to a silenced Yankee Stadium crowd came in 1939, and yet more than 70 years later there is still little that medicine can do to slow the progression of ALS. Corey has gotten used to explaining it and describing what is happening to his body. It’s a neurological disease, a degeneration of the motor nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Eventually, he will no longer be able to control any of the voluntary muscle movement in his body. Involuntary muscles, like the heart, continue to function. But voluntary use of muscles, like walking or lifting limbs or talking or taking a deep breath—yes, he affirms, strange to think of that as voluntary, but it weakens the muscles that assist in breathing—will all eventually disappear. But the patient’s cognitive abilities? Those often remain completely intact throughout the disease, until the moment the body can no longer breathe.

There are about 30,000 people with ALS in the United States at any time, and though the peak age at onset is in the late 50s or early 60s, cases do occur for people Corey’s age. No matter the age, the disease is relentless. Half of the people with ALS die within 30 months of the onset of symptoms, and only 20 percent survive between five and ten years. In the vast majority of cases, including Corey’s, the cause is unknown. Treatments are limited, almost nonexistent. Corey takes one medicine, twice a day, for which he says there is a chance it will extend his life by one month. Not many other options exist for ALS patients.

And there is no known cure.

 

It should be said that there was never any question that Corey would return for his senior year at Middlebury. At least, not for him or his family. The doctors had wondered if this was really the best thing if he only had a couple years to live. But not returning was never an option in Corey’s mind.

Middlebury had been a dream for Corey since he first set foot on campus as a prospective student. He liked that it was a smaller school. His high school, although public, only had about 800 students, and he loved that feeling of knowing everyone. The fact that the College was a great sports school was not lost on this skilled skier, either.

He was so sure that Middlebury was for him that he applied early decision. First he was deferred, then waitlisted. He reluctantly settled on Colby, even placing a Colby bumper sticker on his family’s 1989 gold Toyota Land Cruiser. But one week later, when he heard that he had been accepted off  Middlebury’s waitlist, he was back at the car’s bumper, this time with a razor, removing Colby’s name and affixing the Middlebury sticker instead.

Looking back on his early days at college, he says he can identify times when there were indications that something was wrong with his body. Occasionally he’d find himself a little unsteady, spilling when carrying a glass. And the summer after his freshman year, during an internship with a dentist, he had occasional trouble picking up the instruments.

But it wasn’t until he had returned from a semester abroad at Middlebury’s school in Logroño, Spain, that clearer signs emerged. Seeing him for the first time in six months, Corey’s friends noticed that his speech sounded a little more nasal, a little slurred. His muscles twitched at times. He noticed it took him longer to ski down the slopes than some of his friends. And during that softball game that year, his friends wondered why he was slow to run to first base.

“Why weren’t you hustling?” they asked.

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