Moments after making two laps around the University of South Florida campus in his Pursuit XL motorized wheelchair, retired Navy SEAL Gary “Doc” Welt said he was on a new special operations mission.
To find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that has robbed him of his mobility. To raise awareness of the signs and symptoms and money to find a cure. And to find out why those who have served in the military are two times more likely to contract ALS than civilians.
“We will run to the sound of the guns and attack this with all professional violence of action,” said Welt, who was one of more than 750 people taking part in the annual Greater Tampa Bay Walk to Defeat ALS. The roughly 2-mile walk, which kicked off at 11 a.m., followed a pep rally hosted by 970 AM radio personality Corey Dylan. It raised about $125,000, organizers say.
“I was fully capable and able to walk,” said Welt.
But no longer.
On Feb. 1, after experiencing a few months of muscle twitching, weakness in his legs and arms and a loss of grip strength, Welt was told he has ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
After surviving the battlefields of Afghanistan and many other parts of the world, Welt, 54 and living in Seminole, now faces a so-far unconquerable foe.
“In a word? It sucks,” said Welt.
Told he has between three and five years to live, Welt said he won’t die without a fight.
Welt, who retired as a master chief, spent 16 years as a medic and says he wants to put that experience to work helping find out why service members are at such a greater risk of dying from ALS.
“We can be where it’s 40 degrees below zero or 130 degrees,” he surmised. “We are under all kinds of stress. Maybe that’s why.”
“It’s been nearly 75 years since Lou Gehrig died of ALS, and very little has changed in the way of what’s going on with the disease,” said Alissa C. Gutierrez. “If you walk into a doctor’s office today and receive an ALS diagnosis, you hear the very same thing Lou Gehrig heard in 1939. We don’t know why this is happening to you, there is no cure and you are going to die in five years.”
Gutierrez says the organization remains optimistic.
“There have been breakthroughs and reasons for hope,” she said. “At the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, researchers discovered an abnormal gene that causes many cases of ALS.”
But there is a long way to go and a lot of money needed.
Ed Pawlusiak, a resident of Montreal who winters in the Tampa area, was walking on behalf of a friend, Tony Proudfoot, a former defensive back for the Montreal Alouettes who died of ALS in December 2010.
“I told him I would walk to raise money for a cure as long as I could,” says Pawlusiak, 67, who used to work for the Canadian National Railroad. “This disease is not uncurable, it is underfunded. We need someone like Bill Gates to step forward with a tremendous infusion of money for research.”
For more information about ALS, or to donate to the Tampa Walk to Defeat ALS, go to www.walktodefeatals.org.