Thursday, October 05, 2017

A Tribute to Melissa McMahon

Melissa McMahon, wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, died on Monday October 2nd, 2017 from complications associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). ALS is a disease that relentlessly destroys motor neurons, leading to muscle weakness, atrophy, and eventual paralysis. Speaking with Melissa after her diagnosis, she revealed a subtle reduction in her ability to exercise during early 2015. For example, she would go jogging, and found herself breathless due to exertion, which caused her to pause her run every 5 minutes. She then became pregnant with her son Miles, whom she gave birth to during early 2016. During the pregnancy, she began to notice weakness in her right hand (which was her dominant hand). She began to seek a medical diagnosis for her hand during the spring of 2016. ALS was suspected given her family history, which included a father lost to ALS, her father’s cousin lost to ALS, and additional distant family members also lost to ALS; all of whom resided on her fathers-mothers side of the family.
A diagnosis of probable ALS came during the spring-summer of 2016. I visited Melissa during August 2016, and observed her right hand becoming increasingly useless, with weakness/paralysis spreading into the right arm. Yet despite the atrophy in her right hand and arm, she otherwise appeared physically normal and in good spirits. Half a year passed before I saw her again. The right arm had lost most function, and she appeared a bit more sluggish. I visited one additional time during late May, and paralysis in the left hand/arm was beginning to take place. Also, at this point, she was physically exhausted when attempting simple tasks such as walking across a room, and her head was beginning to drop due to weakening neck muscles. I fondly recall eating a lunch with her in the Dundee district in Omaha during this last visit. We discussed her disease progression, her religious beliefs and faith, her outlook on life, and a few memories from our childhood. This would be the last time I saw Melissa. However, I did exchange emails and text messages with her from time to time. My understanding of her disease progression during the summer is not completely clear, but from what I could gather, things were going downhill rapidly. For instance, I remember my mother expressing concern about her rapid weight loss, which is a particularly negative indicator when it comes to surviving with ALS.
During Melissa’s last two months of life, we exchanged several letters. Melissa again expressed her faith in God, her hope that I would embrace God, her well wishes for me, and the state of the disease within her body. One thing that most stood out in her last letter to me was her love of sleep, because it allowed her to dream and escape the disease. I appreciated Melissa’s raw honesty in that letter-it was clearly her good bye message to me. A few more text and email messages were passed between her and me during the month of September. One of those messages revealed the results of a test that identified the gene mutation responsible for ALS in our family. She did a great service to our family and science by completing that test before she died. 
The last time I heard from Melissa was when she sent a group text message to my mom, my aunt, and me, expressing her sympathy for my Uncle, who recently suffered a minor stroke. A day or two after that message, I received a call from my mother letting me know that Melissa passed away.
Melissa left a legacy of love, integrity, friendship, determination, professional and educational achievement, an unshakeable moral compass, humor, compassion, and, well, you get the picture. The world must also know that Melissa’s soul was a mirror image of her mothers. Her mother, Sarah Gaxiola, has a heart of gold. She dedicated the last year and a half toward taking care of Melissa and her son Miles. Day in and day out, Sarah was there for Melissa. I can’t say it enough; everyone who admires Melissa should also admire her mother. Not only did Sarah care for Melissa until the very end, but Sarah did the very same thing for her late husband, Michael Garner, when he was struck down by ALS 25 years ago. The world should write books and make movies about the bravery and strength and compassion that Sarah Gaxiola possesses. She is truly a remarkable person.
So what can we learn from this story? First, ALS remains a terrible disease that is still poorly understood by the scientific community. Progress is being made with the disease, but it is painstakingly slow. Second, Melissa handled the disease with grace and courage and honesty. She exceeded the expectations of her friends and family. She is the bravest person I’ve ever known, and I think many other people would agree. Third, her mother Sarah deserves our thanks, because she completely rearranged her life in order to care for her daughter. Fourth, Melissa’s husband Scott deserves our thanks, because of his positive uplifting spirit and unflinching support for his ailing wife. And finally, fifth, we should memorialize Melissa, but we must also embrace the present, which means being grateful for each and every day, making the most of every situation, and leaving a positive impact on the people we encounter. Reach out to the ones you love, because we have nothing without each other.
Melissa, college age - Late 1990's/Early 2000's.
Melissa with her husband Scott and son Miles.
Melissa at a train museum in Omaha - March 2017.
Melissa's son Miles - August 2016.
ALS walk - August 2016.
Melissa with her mother at her father's grave site - May 2017.
May 2017.
Summer/Fall of 2017.


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