Like Lou Gehrig, Mesa cop faces ALS with courage and acceptance - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Like Lou Gehrig, Mesa cop faces ALS with courage and acceptance

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 1:22 pm | Updated: 9:11 pm, Thu Jan 12, 2012.

Like Hall of Fame New York Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig, Mesa police officer Mark Kelly knows the ravages of ALS, a terminal neurological disease that destroys the nerve connections between muscles and the brain, eventually robbing the patient of his ability to walk, speak, swallow or breathe.

And like Gehrig, Kelly, who was diagnosed two years ago - and his family - have faced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with courage and acceptance.

Kelly, a 1997 Mesa High School graduate who worked for the Mesa Police Department for a little more than four years, has not been on the job since last summer.

He no longer can speak, uses a computer to communicate, lies in a hospital bed, has lost the use of his limbs and receives his meals through a feeding tube. It has also become difficult for Kelly to blink, and in order to say yes or no, he moves his mouth a certain way.

His wife, Elizabeth, told the Tribune that the family enlisted the help of hospice earlier this week to assist with Kelly's care as Liz also takes care of their five children.

The oldest, Bryce, 10, is a fourth-grader who began playing Pop Warner football in the fall and also has helped shoulder part of the heavy load by helping his mother take care of their home. The other children are Hyrum, 8; Harley, 5; Bryan, 2; and Mary, who was born nine months ago.

Liz Kelly said that most of the children do not fully understand what their father is going through, and in a letter Kelly posted on the Mesa Police Association's website a number of months ago, he talked about each of his children's activities and expressed concern for his family.

Yet, the 32-year-old officer and his family consider themselves very lucky and are grateful for the help and support they have received from their family, friends, the Mesa Police Department, the Mesa Police Association and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Superstition Ward since Kelly was diagnosed with ALS in April 2009 - and told by doctors he had two to five years to live.

"It's been hard," Liz Kelly said. "We don't know where we'd be without all the help and support. We definitely have to say a big thank you. We have had so much support and help we wouldn't know where to begin to say thank you. It is something to be grateful for."

In fact, about two weeks ago, members of the Mesa Police were quick to help by donating 1,000 hours of their own vacation days or sick time to Kelly, which equals about 10 months of receiving a paycheck. An initial contribution of hours from officers had run out.

The family's words echo Gehrig's sentiments from one of the most famed sports speeches of all time when Gehrig hesitatingly stood before a microphone in front of a sell-out crowd at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. Gehrig told the crowd that although he knew people had been reading about a bad break he had received, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth and that he had an awful lot to live for. Two years later in 1941, he died at age 38.

In Gehrig's case early on, he no longer could field a ground ball as fast as he once could while playing first base, couldn't swing a baseball bat as fast or hit a ball as hard when he was lucky enough to connect. Nor could he run the bases nearly as fast. Simply put, Gehrig, nicknamed the "Iron Horse," was a shadow of the man he once was.

Although Gehrig looked healthy on the outside until the disease began progressing, the inside of his body was like faulty electrical wiring on a new house that kept getting worse.

In Kelly's case, an early sign that something was wrong was not being able to effectively shoot his service handgun as his hand shook while aiming at a target just a few feet away during a routine target practice.

As Kelly no longer was able to do chores around the yard, his colleague, Officer Tony Filler has helped out and Sgt. Tony Landato has regularly visited him throughout his illness.

Landato, who has worked with Kelly since he was in patrol at the Red Mountain precinct, said that when he visits Kelly nearly every Friday, he'll talk to him about things at work. Kelly has told him he's tired of lying in bed all day.

"He's always in a good mood and always smiling," Landato said. "I've never seen him depressed or down about his illness. He's never complained or said ‘Why me?'"

Landato placed Kelly on light duty early on when he started showing the symptoms of ALS.

"He was good at what he did, and he had a gentle and upbeat personality," Landato said.

There are about 400 people with ALS in Arizona, and 175 in Maricopa County, according to Kim Hughes, of the Arizona Chapter of the ALS Society. Nationally, about 5,000 people are diagnosed with ALS each year.

Liz Kelly said it's hard to tell there's anything wrong with her husband just by looking at him.

"He looks OK," she said. "His arms have lost that meaty look, but he's still heavy. I know, because I have to lift him."

She added, "I've let the kids come to their own understanding of what their father is going through. We know that some people will die sooner than others, but we all will be together again someday, and we know that through our faith."

In one of his last postings, Mark Kelly said, "We are very grateful for all of your thoughts and prayers on our behalf. We really appreciate everything that you do for us and we cherish your friendships. I want to be around as long as I can to be there for my wife, kids and family. It is my wish and dream just to be healthy and normal again. Never take that for granted. God be with you till we meet again. And as my brother Mitchell would say, ‘God is my tower of strength.'"

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