Wilmington Marine Corps veteran lives on, ten years after ALS diagnosis

Wilmington Marine Corps veteran lives on, ten years after ALS diagnosis
Living with ALS (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Tom and Mary Ward came to Wilmington after getting a devastating diagnosis.

In 2010, doctors told them Tom had ALS, a degenerative condition, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The average life expectancy is two to five years.

Tom has been living with the disease for ten years now.

“It’s a disaster. ALS is a disaster waiting to happen and for me its been ten years and I’m grateful to have ten years. I’m twice as long into it as I should have been and if I could just keep on this glide path, I’ll do fine,” said Tom Ward. “The way I think of it is humans are mammals, mammals get diseases and mine is ALS.”

Shortly after getting the news, the Wards learned the disease was connected to Tom’s service in the Marine Corps.

Serving in the military makes someone twice as likely to get an ALS diagnosis. It’s had a devastating impact on the nation’s veterans. Since 2001, more veterans have died from ALS than those that died in combat during both the Iraq and Afghan wars.

ALS destroys the nervous system, making it difficult to control your muscles, but one thing the Wards can control is raising awareness for the disease.

“He truly lives with ALS. He lives every single day in the best, positive way possible," said Mary Ward.

Mary lives with it as well, along with thousands of other loved ones. Her husband requires help showering, dressing, preparing meals and eating, so she left her job teaching to take care of him.

She’s been an outspoken advocate for years now, testifying before congress three years ago to plead for help for caregivers. Those changes for pre-9/11 veteran caregivers came to fruition in October.

Veterans and ALS
Veterans and ALS (Source: WECT)

A terminal diagnosis is no small burden, but Tom had his military training to fall back on and another tool in his toolbox: a paintbrush.

He can still hold a palate knife in his hand. And, his style of oil painting closely resembles impressionism, which allows him some leeway. He and his wife have used art to heal their broken hearts and through it, learned that each day is a gift.

“He continues to paint. He hasn’t given up living at all. A terminal diagnosis could absolutely destroy somebody and I’m not saying that our hearts aren’t broken at times, but I just heard this great quote by Carrie Fisher where she says the way to fix a broken heart is through art and it’s so perfect because that’s really what both of us have done,” said Mary.

Mary is a talented photographer who often brings back images of places Tom can’t maneuver very well, like the beach, so he can translate the photograph into an oil painting.

“For me when I paint, it’s kind of a lost time. There’s no...I don’t have a clock, I don’t know if I’ve been painting for 20 minutes or two hours. Sometimes you just get so lost in the endeavor of painting,” said Tom Ward.

They still grieve the days Tom’s body betrays him and he loses coordination or dexterity, but the way the Wards see it, they get the choice each day, how they want to honor the life Tom still has before him.

For more information about ALS and its impact on veterans visit ALSveterans.com or IamALS.org. Caregivers can find resources at hiddenheroes.org.

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