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Police, military could be at greater risk for ALS

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Posted at 5:01 PM, May 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-15 22:00:55-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Those who have served in communities and in the military could be at a higher risk of developing ALS, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

A 2019 report, ALS in the Military, concluded ALS is connected with military service, regardless of what branch.

"There are several studies on veterans, starting from the Gulf War and until now, that show a slight increase in incidents," Dr. Omar Jawdat, Director of the ALS Clinic at the University of Kansas Health System, said.

The report found that one in six ALS cases involve patients who served in the armed forces.

Doctors are still working to figure out the cause, but service members aren't the only ones battling the disease.

Last August, Kansas City, Missouri Police Officer Sarah Olsen threw out the first pitch at a Kansas City Royals game.

For Olsen, the ceremonial first pitch and the chance to meet Royals great George Brett, represented a dream she never thought would come true.

As a bodybuilder and KCPD Police Officer, Olsen was living out her best life until she started to get sick.

"I fell backwards on a flight of stairs and cracked my head open," she said. "We had to get some answers."

That answer was ALS.

“I looked it up and I knew right then, it’s what I had," Olsen said.

It was a diagnosis that changed her entire life. It meant getting out of uniform and onto desk duty.

“I love being being a police officer," said Olsen. "I still get to do something. So I still have a purpose and that mean’s everything because otherwise I could just sit at home and not do anything.”

ALS is a nerve disease that weakens the muscles and slowly strips away the ability to move and breathe.

“Most of their thinking is intact, but you lose function in your arms and you lose function in your legs," Jawdat said. "You lose the ability to articulate, to form speech and the ability to swallow. It will comprise breathing.”

Several months after throwing out the first pitch, Olsen uses a wheelchair when she is out, and needs a feeding tube. Neither is stopping her from living like every day is her last.

“A lot of things have changed, but everyday you just have to adapt and overcome," Olsen said. "Find a different way to do whatever."

Olsen's call to serve Kansas City is matched by Warrensburg, Missouri-native Tony Vick's call to serve the country.

“I used to be in really good shape," Vick, 34, said. "Basketball, baseball and in the military."

Vick was an athlete and recently married. He was serving in the Army Reserves when symptoms started to appear.

"I noticed when I went to the gym, my grip strength on my right arm started to get bad," he said. "This was around 2015. It just gradually got worse."

He joined the 15 people per day that are diagnosed with ALS.

"Yeah it still hits you like a ton of bricks when you do get it," Vick said.

He had to leave his love for the armed forces behind.

"I miss the military life," Vick said. "Didn't think I would when I was going through it, but, it's kind of like everything else. Once you don't have it, the more you realize what you had."

Researchers are looking into options from vaccines deployed service members get to doing heavy physical activity as possible reasons for the higher than normal rate of ALS diagnoses.

For now, both Vick and Olsen lean on each other in hopes of a cure. They met on social media and talk daily about what they are going through.

The two wish to get back to serving their city and country.

Olsen wants to put her uniform back on and hit the streets.

"That would be my dream," she said. "I would give up anything to just get back and put that uniform back on. You never know."

Vick is just hopeful he lives to see the next year.

"God is going to get me through whatever he puts in front of me," Vick said. "Whether that means I am still here or not, I'm going to do each day like it's my last."