By Alex Lee
As part of Jessie DeKoning’s Vicksburg High School English class, students read the book “Tuesdays with Morrie”, a 1997 memoir by American author Mitch Albom. The book chronicles a series of visits Albom made to his former sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
On a bright sunny morning, 10 days short of the end of the school year, more than two dozen students entered the library to listen to and question Vicksburg resident Jim Stasik, who was diagnosed with ALS in December of 2017. ALS is described as a progressive and fatal neuromuscular disease that robs the body of the ability to walk, stand, speak, swallow, and breathe. Life expectancy is normally two to five years from diagnosis.
Mr. Stasik, speaking from his wheelchair at the front of the class, introduces himself and his disease. It’s obvious that the students, despite many discussions on the subject, are a little uncomfortable. But Stasik’s honesty, knowledge of the disease and his lack of fear or regret put the students at ease. He has their full attention.
He explains that ALS was discovered in 1824 but wasn’t given a name until 1869. He informs them that there is still no cause or cure for this disease and points out that with only 20 to 30 thousand people diagnosed with the disease, and a short life span after diagnosis, the search for a cure and the demand for one are somewhat limited when compared to diseases that affect a larger percentage of the population. There are efforts underway and Stasik credits Steve Gleason, former special teams player for the New Orleans Saints for leading the way.
Gleason once blocked a punt during an extremely difficult time for the city and the Saints and was credited with saving both. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 at the age of 34. He was since awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the work he does on behalf of people living with ALS.
Mr. Stasik tells the students, “I have ALS and in the end it will win, but until then I’m not going to quit winning battles along the way. I may be dying but I’m going to continue to be useful.”
Stasik shared stories of his travels and experiences. He was a chemical operator in his work life, and he coached girls’ soccer. He traveled around the country, and he shared stories of famous people he has met along the way. One of his stories was of meeting Ray Benson, the lead singer of his favorite band Asleep at the Wheel, with whom he had a normal conversation in an airport. At a concert the following evening the band played, “This Old Cowboy,” and dedicated it to Stasik.
The disease came on slowly for Stasik. He noticed an inability to control his lower extremities in the way he had before. He describes the disease “as your brain sending a message to your spinal column to move your legs or arms but the message being delayed or undelivered.”
Stasik was asked by one of the students if ALS was a painful disease. “It’s not because the nerves die first, then the muscles.” Another student asked how he was feeling today. “I’m feeling happy and joyful at being here in this room with you today. I’m not angry with anyone or anything about how things are.”
Stasik’s final message to the students was, “Love your family, take care of yourself, find what you like and do it, if not today then put it on a list and do it when you can.”
While I know this lesson was about a disease highlighted in an English assignment, and it no doubt was that, I can’t help mentioning that it was so much more. This was a lesson in mortality, in bravery, in optimism, and in adaptation. I believe the seeds of these conversations will benefit these students well into their adult lives.
Jim Stasik spent the entire school day talking to classes. He also assists the Vicksburg Girls’ Soccer Team on the sidelines during games, another contribution he makes unselfishly and one that is quite a source of pride for him.
By Alex Lee