Learning About Lou Gehrig, his Diagnosis, Disability and Pride

I can’t resist mentioning that today I caught part of another old baseball flick in the gym. Pride of the Yankees, on TCM, features Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. Sam Wood directed this 1942 MGM classic in which Babe Ruth appears, briefly in cameo, as Babe Ruth. A Times reviewer, writing after its July 1942 release, complained that the film didn’t include enough baseball, nor sufficient drama until its end. That may be true. But your athletically-challenged author was moved by this film, and stopped by some of the scenes depicting how information was conveyed in that era, about the star’s declining health.

movie poster

movie poster, 1942 film “Pride of the Yankees”

I learned about Lou Gehrig in medical school. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a progressive and serious neurological disease that tends to affect a person’s voluntary (“motor”) muscles, such as those of the arms, legs and face. The CDC maintains a national registry for the condition, which is of unknown cause and, to the best of my knowledge today, remains on the shortening list of incurable conditions. The NIH estimates that 20-30,000 people are living with ALS, and that some 5,000 or so are found to have this condition each year in the United States. It typically affects, or “strikes” – as it’s almost universally metaphored, people in their forties or fifties.

(Forgive me the verb, this post is both serious and personal.)

A former colleague, whom I admire and will always remember for what he has taught me about immunology and even more by his working through illness, has ALS and has continued contributing for the long time, over 20 years, that I have known him. What enables some people with illness, i.e. patients, to keep contributing in their field of expertise is, first, their wanting to keep working. But it also requires a sensitive and encouraging environment – a workplace that allows people with knowledge, who become disabled or limited by health concerns, to work as best they can.

I learned that Lou Gehrig was a New Yorker. He was born to German immigrants in Yorkville, near where I live in Manhattan. According to his biography in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the left-hander was born in June 19, 1903 and died on June 2, 1941, a few weeks shy of what would have been his 38th birthday. He was called the Iron Horse and played first base for the Yankees. In the movie, it takes Gehrig a while to realize, or admit, that he can’t play baseball – that he’s stumbling and struggling to even hold a bat, or run or walk. Once the athlete acknowledges his limitations, he is treated kindly and generously by his manager, teammates and fans. At first, the doctor in the Scripps Clinic doesn’t want to tell him the truth about his condition. But Gehrig wants the numbers, the statistics, facts. Finally, after Cooper, playing Gehrig, asks him if it’s “three strikes.” The doctor answers that, yes it is. The patient understands his meaning. No one in the room can pronounce the words “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” but Gehrig gets the picture. The patient doesn’t want to tell his wife but, as these things usually go, she figures it out.

The Yankees and Gehrig’s manager try to keep his illness a secret, but after he gives up his spot on the roster, it becomes progressively evident that something is seriously wrong. One nugget in the film is an interaction with what might be considered a peer patient. Early on, Gehrig encounters a boy who can’t walk, and offers him encouragement. Later, once Gehrig’s condition has become evident, the young man comes to tell him thanks, and to show Gehrig he’s gotten better, by not giving up. But the boy becomes tearful and appears not to enter the stadium. It seems his hero’s deteriorating condition is too much to watch.

On July 4, 1939, Gehrig gave a speech before a packed Yankee stadium. He thanked his teammates, coach, sportscasters, athletes of other teams, fans, his parents and his wife, and concluded, famously, that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Related Posts:

Finding Kindness and Introspection in ‘Half Empty,’ a Book of Essays by David Rakoff

Regrettably, I found the essayist David Rakoff by his obit. It happened last August. The Canadian-born New Yorker died at age 47 of a malignancy. In a reversal of a life’s expectancy’s, the writer’s death was announced by his mother, according to the New York Times.

I was moved to read one of Rakoff’s books, Half Empty, and in that discovered a man who, I like to think, might have been a friend had I known him. It’s possible our lives did cross, perhaps in a hospital ward when I was a resident or oncology fellow, or in Central Park, or through a mutual friend.

The last essay, “Another Shoe,” is my favorite. Rakoff learns he has a sarcoma, another cancer, near his shoulder – a likely consequence of the radiation he received for Hodgkin’s in 1987. He runs through mental and physical calisthenics to prepare for a possible amputation of his arm. He half-blames himself for choosing the radiation years before: “I am angry that I ever got the radiation for my Hodgkin’s back in 1987, although if it’s anybody’s fault, it is mine,” he wrote. “It had been presented to me as an easier option than chemotherapy.” He reflects on his decision as cowardly and notes, also, that it didn’t work.

He wound up getting chemo anyway, a combination – as any oncologist might tell you, but not in the book –that’s a recipe for a later tumor.  So one take-away from this sort-of funny book, among many, is that how doctors explain treatments and options to patients – the words we use – matter enormously, not just in clinical outcomes, but in how people with cancer feel about the decisions they’ve made, years later.

The other part on words, which I love, is a section on the kinds of things ordinary people – friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers…tell people who have cancer. It appears on pages 216-217 of the paperback edition:

“But here’s the point I want to make about the stuff people say. Unless someone looks you in the eye and hisses, ‘You fucking asshole, I can’t wait until you die of this,’ people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?

I look forward to reading more of Rakoff’s essays, and appreciate that he’s given me so much to think about, on living now.

Related Posts:

newsletter software
Get Adobe Flash player