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Diagnosed with a killer disease

The Story

She first noticed the twitching in her hands. Sue Rodriguez remembers how her little finger would involuntarily jerk away from her ring finger. But since she maintained an active and healthy lifestyle, as seen in this CBC Television clip, Rodriguez thought nothing of it. But when the twitching persisted, along with tightness in her arms and pain in her neck and lower back, Rodriguez decided to see a specialist. On Aug. 22, 1991, inside the Vancouver General Hospital, Rodriguez learned she has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a dreadful disease that slowly weakens the nervous system while leaving the mind intact. Rodriguez learns that she will eventually lose the ability to walk, talk and even breathe. The doctor tells Rodriguez that, while few ALS victims can live for a long time, the average life expectancy after diagnosis is three to five years. Rodriguez has just celebrated her 41st birthday.

Medium: Television
Program: Witness
Broadcast Date: Feb. 21, 1994
Guest(s): Sue Rodriguez
Reporter: Jerry Thompson
Duration: 2:38

Did You know?

• Susan Jane Shipley was born in Winnipeg on Aug. 2, 1950 and grew up in Toronto. By 25, she was living in California after being divorced. There she met her second husband, Henry Rodriguez, whom she married in 1981. They later moved to Saanich, a suburb of Victoria, B.C., with their son, Cole. At the time of her diagnosis, they were separated.

• ALS strikes randomly. While there is no known cause and no known cure, recent medical breakthroughs include riluzole, the first and only prescription drug for ALS. The drug moderately delays the crippling symptoms associated with the disease.

• According to the ALS Society of Canada, the disease strikes 6 people out of 100,000 annually. ALS usually but not exclusively occurs between the ages of 40 and 70.

• Some people with ALS can live for a long time. They generally tend to be males who are diagnosed at a young age. Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist and author of the international bestseller A Brief History of Time has lived with ALS for over 30 years. He was first diagnosed at 21.

• The disease is named after Lou Gehrig who played first base for the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939. He and teammate Babe Ruth are considered baseball's greatest hitting duo. Described as modest and a gentleman, this outstanding athlete died in 1941 from the disease. Gehrig was 37.

• ALS attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, eventually killing the motor neurons which control the movement of voluntary muscles. When these motor neurons die, the brain can no longer initiate or control muscle movement. Because the muscles can no longer receive the messages they need in order to function, they gradually weaken and deteriorate.

• According to ALS Society of Canada, two to three Canadians a day die from ALS. Currently (2004) there are 2,000 Canadians living with ALS. Susan Graham Walker, Director of Communications at ALS Society of Canada, notes that a majority of those who contract the disease tend to be intelligent, athletic non-smokers with positive personalities.


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