In June of 1994, after a church service in Sound Beach, I met an elementary school science teacher. Chris Pendergast is a phenomenal human being. He is dynamic and charismatic. He is courageous and compassionate. His love for life and his desire to make a difference and leave the world a better place then when he found it is contagious.
When I met Chris on that June afternoon, his voice was vibrant, his spirit was strong, but his walk was inhibited. What I didn't know then, was that Chris Pendergast was suffering from ALS (also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis - Lou Gehrig's disease). He had already been battling this disease for some time. However, he made a decision after his diagnosis that he would not let the disease control him. Rather, he would control it.
ALS is a rapidly progressing disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. Eventually, the person with the disease loses all of his strength and ability to move his arms, legs and ultimately his entire body. When the muscles in the diaphragm and chest fail, the patient cannot breathe without a ventilator. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure, usually within three to five years. About ten percent of patients survive for ten years or more.
As many as thirty thousand Americans have ALS. An estimated five thousand Americans are diagnosed every year. One ALS patient dies every ninety minutes in our country. ALS commonly strikes people between the ages of forty and sixty, men more often than women.
The early symptoms may include twitching, cramping, stiffness of muscles, weakness of arm or leg muscles, slurred and nasal speech and difficulty chewing or swallowing. The cause is not known. Research suggests mutations in a particular gene are associated with some cases of inherited ALS. Unfortunately, to date no cure has been found. However, the Food and Drug Administration has approved rizuzole, a drug that is believed to reduce damage to motor neurons of ALS patients. Clinical trials show the drug prolongs survival by several months and extends the time before the patient needs a ventilator.
ALS is incurable and is always fatal. It causes increasing paralysis and results in death from respiratory failure. People with ALS usually die within two to three years of their diagnosis. It strikes both sexes, all races and most commonly strikes middle-aged people. ALS is diagnosed about as often as MS and more frequently than Muscular Dystrophy.
For more than a dozen years, Chris Pendergast has been a prophetic voice attempting to raise human awareness of the need to invest more time, money and energy in honest research. Chris and many others believe that there is a cure for ALS, if only we are willing to invest the time and money in scientific research.
Ten years ago, Chris was determined to raise people's awareness regarding ALS. That passion and commitment gave birth to the annual Ride for Life. In the early years, participants started their journey at Yankee Stadium and rode wheelchairs to Washington, D.C. In recent times, ALS patients ride their electric wheelchairs for more than one hundred and fifty miles, from the historic Montauk Lighthouse on the tip of Long Island to the streets of Manhattan to raise funds to further raise ALS awareness.
On Monday, March 19, 2007, at Lombardi's on the Sound at the Port Jefferson Country Club, people gathered for the kickoff of the 10th Annual Ride for Life. The main dining room was filled with ALS patients in wheelchairs, their families, friends and supporters. Bud Harrelson, Senior Vice President for the Ducks and former shortstop for the New York Mets was the evening's emcee. The evening was generously hosted by the Lombardi family.
After everyone shared hors d'oeurves, drinks and dessert, the formal program began. Each year, the formal program begins with a moving slide presentation to a powerful song. This year's song was Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up." The mood that was created was powerful. The presentation touched every heart that was present. It challenged you to take pause and really think about your life. You could not help but appreciate your own gift of life and give thanks for your blessings. Everyone was profoundly moved by those among us who were embracing painful challenges that are overwhelming.
The evening ended with everyone taking a lighted candle. We were invited to remember all those that have gone before us prematurely because of ALS and to be mindful of those among us courageously battling ALS. We were reminded as we held our lighted candles that night, that the world is brighter and richer because of those courageous men and women who meet each day with courage and the willingness to continue the journey and fight for a cure.
As a darkened room grew bright with a multitude of candles, a brilliant voice closed the evening with a powerful rendition of the Alabama song "Angels Among Us." In between the first verse and refrain, those with ALS, most of whom were in wheelchairs, were invited to the front. The image of those courageous men and women sitting before us with their lighted tapers, reminding us by their woundedness that there is hope for a cure, left an indelible mark on each of us.
This evening of celebration formally initiates the annual Ride for Life. Its' founder Chris Pendergast was diagnosed with ALS in 1993. Chris is a resident of Miller Place. He and his wife Christine have been married for almost thirty years. They have two wonderful children. He is soon to be a grandfather.
He began his teaching career in the Northport School District. He taught science with distinction on the elementary school level. In 1984, he was selected as a facilitator for the gifted and talented students in that district and continued in that position until his retirement.
Since being diagnosed, Chris has become an ardent and well-known advocate for ALS. He writes and lectures extensively about the disease. A recent book, "Teachers With the Courage to Give" carried an essay he wrote entitled, "Real Strength."
Real strength is an excellent phrase to describe this man of faith and courage. As he continues to battle his illness, his strength and courage continue to touch everyone who is privileged to be in his presence. He will remind you that he is not dying, but rather is learning how to live with suffering. He speaks about it as an opportunity to make a difference and to hopefully make the world a better place.
In a world that so desperately needs courageous men and women as heroes, Chris Pendergast is a great hero and an exceptional teacher. Every day, he heroically teaches us with his life, about character, integrity and how we should live. He reminds us by the power of his example, how not to succumb to adversity, but to use it as a bridge for growth and the celebration of hope.
The great teacher and author, Morrie Schwartz, shared a wonderful allegory before he died, that speaks to all of us.
"There is this little wave, a he-wave who's bobbing up and down in the ocean off the shore, having a great time. All of a sudden, he realizes he's going to crash into the shore. In this big wide ocean, he's now moving toward the shore, and he'll be annihilated. My God, what's going to happen to me? He says with a sour and despairing look on his face. Along comes a female wave, bobbing up and down, having a great time. And the female wave says to the male wave, Why are you so depressed? The male says, You don't understand. You're going to crash into the shore, and you'll be nothing. She says, You don't understand. You're not a wave; you're part of the ocean." That's what I believe too. I'm not a wave, I'm (we're) part of all humanity.