“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras”
It’s a quote by a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the 1940s. A reminder to his students that, when searching for a diagnosis, not to think of the obscure until you can rule out the likeliest possibilities. I will never forget hearing it for the first time when a pile of medical students came into Jack’s room at Columbia Presbyterian Morgan Stanleys Children’s Hospital ten years ago. One of the students tapped the young man next to him and whispered, “Dude – THIS is a zebra!”
If Jack is a zebra, then Jon is a unicorn, with purple and cyan stripes. I met him this fall at an ALD event and I kept finding myself staring at him across the table. He’s in his mid-twenties, has his degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering, is a comedian, and has ALD.
THIS is ALD #4 – Jon
This posting on Smiles and Duct Tape might have a different tone than most personal ALD stories. First off, I was diagnosed with ALD at the age of 1 due to the late diagnosis of my brother at age 6. It’s a common story. One that many of us have heard before, but did you catch what was odd? Maybe you did? I did, mainly because I’m the one writing this. There it is again.
The story keeps going with a bone marrow transplant at the age of 6, still a pretty common age range for those who are familiar with ALD. The transplant was at Minnesota which is synonymous with ALD. I came home after the transplant, and lived a normal life. Give up yet? I, me, the one writing the article had the bone marrow transplant. After hearing everything that happens to some boys with this terrible disease, I sometimes forget just how amazing this, THIS, is.
It may even come more to a surprise that the journey started in 1992, when I was born. ALD would hit the silver screen a few months later with the movie Lorenzo’s Oil. Six years later, and an incredibly experimental treatment lead and here we are. So this article will take a different turn than any other ALD article and I’ll share with you everything I’ve done since the transplant. Everything, that is now achievable, by any other boy who is prescreened.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. Love designing ideas in my Inventor’s Notebook and building with Legos. Even during my transplant I was building Lego kits that were 12 years old and up. I was 6 at the time. It kept me busy. Models surrounded my hospital and Ronald McDonald House rooms. The passion for engineering continued after the transplant, as I excelled in math and science classes. Getting straight A’s in grammar school while being active in Boy Scouts. Scouting let me explore many different subjects, experiences, and knowledge which I still used today. In High School, I enrolled in Honors Math and Science classes. Doing my best to continue my streak of mostly A’s with the occasional B. I had the opportunity to take a few AP classes and a college level chemistry course which helped ready me for college. Furthermore, after class, I joined the Theatre Club and found joy in performing and speaking on stage. Fell in love with it and did as many plays as I could. Boy Scouts became a large part of my High School career. I served on Summer Camp staff for 3 summers and came to earn my Eagle Scout. I was selected to be a part of the Order of the Arrow ( Boy Scouts National Honor Society). Eventually becoming the youth leader as Lodge Chief, giving service to all members in Waukesha County, WI.
Before I even started High School, I knew I wanted to attend the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Everything in High School worked towards that goal, and my senior year, I received my acceptance letter, though I had a feeling I would. College was the best years of my life. I continued all my passions of math and science, except now it was set to 11. I kept up with theatre joining the MSOE Theatre Troupe. There I acted in 6 plays, and directed 2. But the best decision I made in college was joining Triangle Fraternity. It’ an engineering fraternity and I became best friends with all of them. I may have lost a brother, but gained 100s I know I can lean on. Still staying in touch with them and even helping me secure my after college job at Affiliated Engineering in Phoenix Arizona. Today, I design the HVAC systems for colleges campuses and health care facilities. It may not be the same as a doctor treated young boys with ALD, but the buildings I’m designing may someday find a cure for this disease. And I’m okay with that.
I’ve read this piece a dozen times and each time I’m in awe of how little Jon references ALD. He’s just a kid who loved legos and the Boy Scouts and learning and building and theater, and friendships. ALD is part of Jon, but it’s way down on the list of things that define him.
Jon was a pioneer. Like the boys going though gene therapy now, in 1998 stem cell transplants for ALD were experimental. Jon’s family had already lost a son and chose to try something new to save Jon’s life. Not only did it work, but it worked before ALD took over. Honestly, meeting Jon you would not see any hints of our disease. It’s amazing. Inspiring. A little heartbreaking — I can’t help but wonder about Jack and who he would have been had ALD not touched every single part of his life. It’s crazy how random this disease can be, BUT I’m thrilled that Jon has enjoyed such an incredible life and it’s just the beginning of his story!
Thank you Jon for sharing your ALD story. My dream is that, as the years and research move forward, your story will become the standard — boy gets diagnosed, boy gets treated, boy lives life.
Until then Jon — you are the ALD unicorn!