A rare man battling a rare disease, Chris Pendergast led the 19th Annual ALS Ride for Life through Riverhead today, as he’s done each May over the course of the last two decades.
“When I began the ride in 1998, I did it for awareness. I thought I would live one year and I never dreamed of doing it a second time,” he said in an interview a few years ago.
When the Miller Place resident was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in October 1993, the 44-year-old elementary school teacher and his wife weren’t sure what the disease was and had a hard time finding information about it.
The facts were few and frightening.
Commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the Yankee great who died at age 37 from the illness, ALS is a rare, incurable and deadly disease. It attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement. Nerve cells waste away or die, and can no longer send messages to muscles. Eventually the victim’s muscles weaken and he can no longer move his arms, legs, and body. When the muscles in the chest area stop working, it becomes hard or impossible for him to breathe on his own. Most die of respiratory failure, typically within two to three years of diagnosis. Fewer than 10 percent of ALS patients live more than five years.
Pendergast has beaten the odds, for reasons no one can explain. Though he has lost the use of his legs, arms and hands and can breathe only with a respirator, he is still alive and, thanks to a motorized wheelchair he can control with head movements, able to make the annual trek across Long Island to Manhattan.
In addition to raising awareness of ALS, Pendergast’s efforts have helped raise more than $6 million over the years for research.
“The cure is coming,” said Frank Verdone, a Holbrook optometrist diagnosed with ALS in 2014. His voice still strong and clear, Verdone addressed the group of junior high and high school students from McGann-Mercy and Riverhead this morning after they’d marched together downtown to the Peconic riverfront. Thank you all for coming out today and giving us the energy for going on.”
Pendergast, now 67, spoke to the kids through Ride for Life volunteer Barbara Brown because his voice is so weak it is barely audible. He thanked them for their help and recited a stanza from the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Ever the teacher, he told them to look it up and read it when they got home.
“So I have to leave you and I’ll say good-bye and thanks,” Pendergast said.
“You have witnessed how one person can make a difference,” Brown told the group.
The 19th Annual ALS Ride for Life continues across Long Island and ends in Manhattan on May 21. Click here to donate.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti
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