Dan Mellinger remains undaunted in his fight against ALS
The quote comes from an Ernest Hemingway novel — “The Sun Also Rises,” if you must know — but Dan Mellinger has made it his own.
“Never Be Daunted.”
They are three simple words, but they have become Mellinger’s mantra in the face of the biggest battle of his life — a battle against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Mellinger, a longtime local veterinarian, was diagnosed with the disease last August, and in only a year’s time he has lost control of almost all of his muscles. His “Never Be Daunted” attitude, though, remains untouched by the fatal disease.
“I just like that quote,” the 59-year-old High Point man says, “because I like a challenge. I want to keep a positive attitude. As most people know, with this disease, you can’t control much of anything else, so I might as well control my attitude.”
For months, a small, purple sign hung from the back of Mellinger’s power wheelchair, reminding others to “Never Be Daunted.” Today, he signs all of his Facebook posts with the same phrase, which is remarkable considering the rocky road ahead of him.
“I kinda joke with him and say, ‘Maybe you can never be daunted, but I am daunted at times,’ ” says Debbie, his wife of 36 years.
“But yeah, we do try to have a good attitude. For sure, this is not a journey you would choose to be on, but we’ve been blessed by our church, Dan’s clients, our neighbors, our friends, by people we don’t even know. Every day, you never know what blessing might come our way.”
Dan’s journey with ALS began in June 2012, when he began experiencing muscle weakness, fatigue and muscle fasciculations, or tics. A series of tests gradually ruled out Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis and various other diseases until doctors were left with the ALS diagnosis last August.
“It was devastating for me,” Dan says. “I was still practicing and owned my own business (Northwood Animal Hospital), and I had a lot of people I was responsible for. At first you want to deny it, but eventually I was not able to practice anymore, and in November 2012 I retired from patient care but still owned the business.”
As his symptoms continued to progress, Dan finally sold the business in April.
“I kept getting weaker and weaker,” he recalls. “Now, I’m confined to a wheelchair and am basically like a quadriplegic. I can still speak and eat and swallow, but my respirations are difficult because my diaphragm is involved — it’s a muscle, and this is a neuromuscular disease.”
A BiPAP machine helps Dan breathe, though he can go for short periods without using it.
“I sleep with it,” he says. “Without it, I don’t think I’d be here.”
The Mellingers have renovated their house to accommodate Dan’s needs, with the goal of him not having to go to a nursing facility.
“Our downstairs living room is now our bedroom, and we converted a bedroom that was behind it to a bathroom with a roll-in shower,” Dan says. “Then we have an overhead track system with a motorized sling so Debbie can get me out of bed, take me to the toilet, take me to the shower.”
A contraption known as a multilink arm support, which locks onto the wheelchair and is strapped to Dan’s left arm, helps him manipulate an iPad that sits in his lap, allowing him to check email and Facebook, and even to watch Netflix movies. The iPad also has voice recognition technology, which converts Dan’s spoken words to written words.
“This is about the only way I can communicate with people,” he says. “If somebody calls, I can’t answer the phone.”
Through it all, Dan has remained positive and has even been an exemplary advocate for the ALS Association. For the Walk To Defeat ALS, held four months ago in Greensboro, Dan’s team — known as Dan’s Fans — raised some $24,000, more than any other team, and Dan was the top individual fundraiser.
He also continues to find blessings in his life. He speaks often of the support he’s received from his family and friends. He has a deep faith in God that has kept him strong. He’s been fortunate enough to have the resources to adapt to his new lifestyle and remain at home. And his first grandchild, a girl, is due any day now.
“I have a lot to be thankful for,” he says.
That’s the “Never Be Daunted” attitude others have seen in Dan since his diagnosis a year ago.
“He’s not dying with this disease — he’s living with it,” says Linda O’Briant, who attends First Presbyterian Church with the Mellingers and is one of Dan’s Fans.
“He’s just an inspiration and has such a strong faith in the way he’s facing this. You know, it’s easy to have faith when everything’s going your way. There’s an old saying that when fear knocks, faith answers, and Dan’s a perfect example of that. Fear has knocked on his door, and faith has answered.”
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Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of ALS may become totally paralyzed.
As many as 30,000 Americans have the disease at any given time, according to the ALS Association.
The average life expectancy of an ALS patient from the time of diagnosis is two to five years.
There is no cure.
Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease — for the former New York Yankee, who died of ALS — the disease has also cut short the lives of such notables as baseball pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, actor David Niven, boxer Ezzard Charles, photographer Eddie Adams, entertainer Dennis Day and jazz musician Charles Mingus.
For more information, call the ALS Association at (800) 782-4747 or visit www.alsa.org.