Vets at risk for ALS

November 10, 2008 9:53:39 AM PST
November 11th is Veterans' Day, a holiday devoted to honoring those who put their lives on the line for their country. Many veterans return from war with emotional and psychological problems, but there's another risk -- a devastating disease that kills in a couple of years.

As an Army sergeant, Ken Patterson was ready and willing to fight for his country.)

Now, he's fighting for his life. Patterson has ALS, a fatal disease also known as Lou Gehrig's. It attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

"You go through anger and then denial. I thought about ending my life," Patterson said.

His speech is affected by the disease. Patterson's lost his ability to walk and move. His wife, Glenda is always by his side.

"Without her, I wouldn't be here," Ken Patterson said.

The Pattersons say they want to know why veterans are more than twice as likely to develop ALS. They recently traveled from their home in Florida to Washington D.C. by wheelchair - 940 miles total.

"Five miles per hour," Ken Patterson said.

The goal of the three-week journey was to raise awareness about the link between ALS and veterans.

Doctor Lucie Bruijn says there could be many causes. Soldiers are often exposed to polluted air, chemical agents, radioactive waste and high-powered vaccines.

"What I think is happening in the case of the military is, there is an environmental exposure and a susceptibility," Bruijn said.

The lifespan of someone diagnosed with ALS is about two to five years. There's just one drug approved to treat the disease, but it only extends life by about eight to 12 weeks and costs about $1,000 a month.

"The huge frustration is no, we don't quite have the answers yet. No, we don't have the therapies," Bruijn said.

Ken Patterson wants answers but knows he doesn't have much time left. He plans on enjoying every minute with his family.

"Live every day," he said.

In September, the Veterans Administration recognized ALS as a service-connected disease. Veterans with the disease will now have access to benefits. It doesn't matter if a veteran served in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines; all have a higher risk for developing ALS.


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