by Dave Lukas, Lake In the Hills, Illinois
Three years ago, my life was changed forever. Three years ago, I walked out of a doctor’s office, got in my car and sobbed. Three years ago, my image of what my future looked like was shattered.
Today, my life is still changed forever. Today, I leave doctor’s offices feeling confident and grateful. Today, my image of my future looks uncertain, but there is so much hope.
Three years ago today, I was diagnosed with fascioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). It took me a long time to remember how to pronounce it, spell it, and for my phone to figure out it wasn’t misspelled. It’s a rare form of muscular dystrophy I was born with, a genetic disease. My body produces a protein called DUX4 and this protein destroys and kills muscle. And like all forms of muscular dystrophy, it’s a progressive disease. I will keep losing more muscles, and will not get them back. There is no cure.
But it’s not like the muscular dystrophy you know from the Jerry Lewis telethons. FSHD is a much sneakier disease. Most of us get diagnosed in our mid- to late 20s after years of having something just a bit “off” about our bodies that no one seems to be able to explain. Most doctors are mystified.
It’s a slow disease that gradually robs people of muscles in their face, shoulders, upper body, and legs. It takes away things like being able to reach up and wash your hair, being able to get dishes down from the top shelf, the ability to smile, and other activities most people take for granted. It’s a disease people learn to live with by making a series of adjustments to do the random everyday stuff. For many of us, it progresses to legs and feet and begins to weaken and kill the muscles there. About a quarter of people with FSHD end up in wheelchairs.
But those are the facts. Thankfully they aren’t my reality now, but they are for so many of my friends and others with our disease.
With hindsight, I see that my journey started in my mid 20s, when I noticed I couldn’t raise my arms completely over my head. Fast forward 16 years and my wife (fiancé at the time) kept saying my shoulders just weren’t right. The way I took my shirt off wasn’t right. The way I reached for things up high wasn’t right. So I saw a local orthopedic doctor and he saw the oddities and thankfully paused long enough to say, “this isn’t right, I know a doctor you should go see, she’s a friend of mine and she might know what this is.”
Enter Dr. Charulatha Nagar, a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine. Even typing her name makes me cry with gratitude for this woman. She is simply the best doctor I have ever come across. Even my wife, who knows doctors, agrees with me. She saw me, took a look at me, asked me to do a bunch of random stuff (walk on my heels, push my hand away, purse my lips, to name a few) and then sent me for more blood work than I thought was even possible. Even the tech was surprised at the sheer volume of tests Dr. Nagar wanted to run and went to grab extra vials. About a million needle and finger pricks later, Brandi and I walked out still unsure what was going on, but confident in Dr. Nagar.
A few weeks later, we had a return visit to go over the results of these tests. That was today, three years ago. She informed me that my muscle protein levels were eight times higher than normal—meaning my muscles were screaming out that they were in trauma. That combined with my physical examination, Dr. Nagar informed me I had facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. She needed to confirm with a genetic test, but she had studied and worked with patients with FSHD in medical school, so she knew the disease well and was confident I had it. A later genetic test would confirm my diagnosis.
I really don’t remember what else we talked about in her office, but I remember walking out to the car with Brandi and feeling overwhelmed with uncertainty. We got back into my car and I started sobbing! What was my life going to look like now? How soon would I lose all the muscle in my body? Would I die early? What if I couldn’t see my kids grow up? What if I became a burden on my future wife? She had already lost one husband to a rare disease. Why does she have to care for another? How was that fair?
Those and many more questions swirled and bounced in my head for what seemed like months. I really struggled to identify as someone who had a disease that would affect me for the rest of my life. I struggled with telling people. I didn’t want people to treat me differently. I didn’t want people to look at me like I was sick or broken. I kept my diagnosis hidden from everyone except family and close friends.
Which is where everyone else came in somewhere along the path. They either heard my diagnosis from me or heard it from my parents or read about a random post here on Facebook. But not from me directly. And that’s not fair. I truly struggled with telling people and struggled to wear the identity as someone who has muscular dystrophy. It was a journey to get to the point I’m at today.
Fast forward three years and where am I? I’ve already participated in one clinical research study and I’m about to start another. I immediately became involved in the biggest and most influential charity and research non-profit for my disease, the FSH Society. And now I’m taking steps to formally establish a national chapter through the Society here in the Chicagoland.
I have a team of doctors and medical professionals I trust 100 percent and it brings tears of gratitude just to think of them. Which then evokes more tears cause I’m one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to go through 20 doctors to figure out what I had. I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve read about people with FSHD who have gone through doctors upon doctors and they still don’t have a doctor who knows how to treat them. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude for people like Dr. Nagar. Hence all the grateful, grateful, grateful tears.
There is hope on the horizon for a cure, as well as treatments to stop the progression of the disease. We know what causes the disease, which is a huge step. There are so many teams all over the world that are working on cures right now. And with the FSH Society leading the way with both their awareness efforts and advancing of research grants, I’m confident we’re going to get there.
The Society has a goal of having a disease-modifying drug on the market by 2025 and is confident this is achievable! To think that my world was rocked in 2015 and ten years later we could have a cure or progression stopper for my disease…holy #%&!
This disease has taught me to be grateful for the little things. There are so many things I’m still able to do (like run) that so many others with FSHD cannot. There may come a point in my life when I can’t do those things anymore. So I do them while I can to the best of my ability.
This isn’t a quick story and it’s one I’ve needed to tell for some time. It’s important because while this disease doesn’t define me, it’s a part of me and my story.
Hard challenges are put in front of us all the time and we have the choice to look at them as obstacles or fuel to propel you further on your path. My FSHD diagnosis laid me low for a while. It left me on the side of the road beat up and broken. But I stood up, dusted myself off, wiped away the tears, and used this diagnosis and this disease as fuel to make me a better person. This disease won’t break me. I’m stronger than FSHD.
Three years later, I find myself with a greater sense of power and purpose with FSHD. I may not know what lies ahead for me, but all I have to do is look to my wife and my three children to remember who else I’m fighting for. All I have to do is connect and reach out to all the friends I’ve met who have FSHD to remember the collective strength we have.
Going from powerless to powerful has been quite the journey. I’m not broken, I’m not helpless.
I am humbled, honored and encouraged.
I AM stronger than FSHD.