Man fights ALS diagnosis with faith

2012-06-17T00:00:00Z 2012-06-18T00:16:35Z Man fights ALS diagnosis with faithBy Vanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

In the past year, Eric Dahl's hands have gone from gripping baseballs to pressing puzzle pieces into place.

The 40-year-old used to chase his three kids around the yard, wrestle with them on the front-room floor and play hide and seek.

A terminal disease has changed that.

"All things I can't do," he said. "Even those silly video games."

Life changed last June. Upper body weakness would not fade and phlegm did not clear up after a round of antibiotics. Dahl visited a neurologist.

A 20-minute exam revealed the news.

"I don't want to have to tell you this but I believe you have ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease," he said, recalling the doctor's words. "As a baseball fan, I knew about Lou."

Dahl was 5 when he first attended a Cubs game. He grew up hearing about the greats whose names had become legendary, players such as Gehrig, a New York Yankees slugger.

Gehrig is known for setting records but also for having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that cut his life short at 37. ALS, a progressive degenerative disease affecting motor neurons, is often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"In ALS, motor neurons gradually cease functioning and die. As this happens, the muscle tissues waste away because no movement is being stimulated," according to the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Chicago.

The disease progresses differently in each person, but the average survival rate is three to five years, according to the foundation.

A second opinion and tests at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., backed up the ALS diagnosis.

Dahl takes medicine that slows the speed of the disease, but its widespread results are modest.

He exercises to keep his muscles strong, especially those that control his breathing. Still, he is not strong enough to return to his hobby of racing sailboats on Lake Michigan.

Dahl, a structural engineer, lives on the outskirts of Dyer with his wife, Jean, and their children, Gunnar, 7, Andrew, 6, and Julia, 3.

His children notice the weakness in his frame.

"They've come to accept this is the way daddy is," Jean Dahl said.

He can't play baseball in the yard with them anymore, but he'll turn on the Cubs game and talk to them about it.

"When they're playing their video games, I'll sit with them," he said.

Instead of moving to Villa Park, Ill., to be closer to Dahl's job, his family moved from Crete to unincorporated St. John Township so the children could stay in school at St. John the Evangelist in St. John.

The family bought a one-level home, where getting around will be easier for Dahl. The home includes an office, where Dahl still works.

"Eventually, that will end," he said.

The family relies on the Helping Hands group at their church, St. John the Evangelist. Volunteers cook meals and help with odd jobs around the house.

Dahl leads a men's ministry at church.

He was not raised religious, but he became Catholic and leans heavily on his faith.

"I've been on this journey that I know has prepared me for what I'm going through now," he said.

He meets weekly for spiritual guidance with the Rev. Sammie Maletta, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church. The meetings are important to him, as is the friendship of a fellow parishioner who has ALS.

"We're two very different people, but we understand each other," he said.

Dahl's wife said faith has been the rock in their lives.

"Nobody can go through this alone," Jean Dahl said. "I have to keep calling on God to hold my hand, to walk me down that path."

The couple knows there is no cure, that a day will come when Jean will raise their children without Eric. Knowing they have family and friends for support is a cushion. Behind it all, there is God, Jean said.

"I look to him each and every day to get through this," she said.

Eric Dahl said he believes in the promises of Christ.

"I'll do all I can while I'm here, but I'm going to a better place," he said.

For more information about Dahl, visit www.friendsoferic.net.

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