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In memory of Mary Ann Abeska

someone we've lost to ALS

Maryland


After weeks of examinations and testing, including three electromyogram (EMG) tests, Mary Ann was diagnosed with ALS on July 31, 2015, a date burned into my memory.

Written by Tim Abeska

My late wife, Mary Ann (Blakeney) Abeska, was born in Chestertown on May 21, 1953. In 1969, she moved with her family to Dayton, Ohio when her stepfather was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Mary Ann graduated in 1971 from Wayne High School in Dayton, Ohio.

On September 11, 1973, Mary Ann enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. She completed basic training at Lackland AF Base in San Antonio, Texas and Printer Systems technical training at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas. On February 20, 1974, she and a technical school classmate were chosen as the first ‘WAFs’ to receive FLEXSCOP operator training at the Naval NTTC School at Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida, for the six-week course to enable them to operate the FLEXSCOP computer system at a field site. 

In May 1974, Mary Ann reported to her first duty station with 6931st Security Group, Iraklion Air Station, Crete, Greece. In January 1977, she transferred to 6950th Security Group at RAF Chicksands, England. These assignments were part of what was then known as the United States Air Force Security System (USAFSS), which was essentially the cryptographic intelligence branch of the Air Force. It is currently known as the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and is comprised primarily of airmen culled from the cream of the Air Force’s enlisted recruits (the top 1/2 of 1 percent). Mary Ann was honorably discharged on April 8, 1979, with the rank of E-5 Staff Sergeant.

After leaving the Air Force, Mary Ann worked in Indiana and met me while I was attending Law School at the University of Notre Dame. We were married on May 19, 1984. 

Mary Ann’s neurological odyssey began in February 2012, when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. This diagnosis was based on the resting tremor, bradykinesia, and rigidity of muscle movement.

At first, the Parkinson’s was largely an inconvenience which was addressed by antiparkinsonian medications, primarily Carbidopa and Levodopa. Having had many dogs in the past, we brought a dog into the household to keep Mary Ann moving and walking, and she was “all in” on exercise therapy. By the end of 2014, other distinct symptoms began to manifest themselves, including footdrop and shrinking of the muscles in Mary Ann’s right calf which required her to wear a leg brace. The neurologist overseeing Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s treatment agreed that these new symptoms were not consistent with Parkinson’s and referred her to a specialist. After weeks of examinations and testing, including three electromyogram (EMG) tests, Mary Ann was diagnosed with ALS on July 31, 2015, a date burned into my memory. A confirming second opinion soon followed.

The combination of Parkinson’s and ALS is called Brait-Fahn-Schwarz Disease, named after the doctors who discovered this unusual combination, which is especially rare outside of certain Pacific Island regions.  So, Mary Ann was hit with a neurological “double whammy.” The ALS symptoms progressed and became dominant. I watched a once vibrant woman progress from walking with a leg brace to a cane, then a walker, then a rollator, then a manual wheelchair and, after Mary Ann was robbed of all her mobility, a power wheelchair.

I accelerated a planned retirement from the practice of law to become responsible for Mary Ann’s care, both as a hands-on caregiver and manager of the care. We received tremendous care and support from the Veteran’s Administration because Mary Ann was an Air Force veteran. The VA considers ALS to be a service-connected illness because it strikes veterans at a statistically higher rate than the general population.

Mary Ann died in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2019, at a hospice care facility. There is not a day that goes by when I do not think about her and miss her. I am staying in the fight as an ALS Advocate, so I can do my small part to increase awareness about ALS and help those affected by this terrible disease.


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