In a hold of ALS, Fred Nelligan struggled with when to use Oregon’s Death … – The Oregonian

November 13, 2014 - als

As a male on a radio shade charged adult Mount St. Helens, a room fell silent. Off screen, Fred Nelligan sat in his maroon armchair, silently sobbing, his physique atrophied and thin.

The Sep 2013 stand was presumably a final time Nelligan stood truly in his component – surrounded by friends, enjoying a earthy accomplishment, shower adult nature.

Despite his strong participation in a video Nelligan common with friends during his Milwaukie-area home final month, a longtime outdoorsman had struggled to keep adult that day. Climbing a slope with his GoPro camera, he could see a backs of his friends grow smaller as they neared a summit.

Maybe, he suspicion during a time, it was age. At 60, Nelligan was during slightest 10 years comparison than many of his climbing partners. Maybe it was his 40-pound pack. As a proffer in a backcountry and a hunt and rescue veteran, Nelligan always climbed with a full bucket of puncture supplies. Everyone else carried daypacks.

Reporter Molly Harbarger (left) and photographer Stephanie Yao Long began following Fred Nelligan 4 months ago, formulation to tell his story in installments as his ALS progressed and he worked by end-of-life decisions.

After a rest, Nelligan struggled to lift his container and bend a straps. His arms and shoulders felt weak. His hands refused to cooperate. He didn’t know during a time, though he was feeling a initial symptoms of ALS, a singular neurological illness that typically ends in a slow, curse death.

A year later, Nelligan was 40 pounds lighter and struggling to keep weight on with a feeding tube. In September, his alloy estimated that he had reduction than 6 months to live.

While he still had some strength, Nelligan wanted to use it to confirm how his story would end. He motionless to use Oregon’s Death with Dignity law before totally losing a male on a TV, a one hire on a damaged tip of a volcano, breeze defeat aloud past his face. The some-more Nelligan suspicion about how he wanted to die, a some-more deeply he deliberate a definition of his remaining life — and a final choice he gets to make.

“I’m perplexing to get a clarity of, what do we lose, afterwards we call it.”


Fred Nelligan felt a tingle in his right bicep one night in Apr 2012. The tingle jumped to his left arm a subsequent night, and widespread by his chest over a subsequent few weeks.

A alloy pronounced a twitching seemed benign. Then debility set in. He began sportive harder to compensate, though still he fell behind on that late summer stand adult St. Helens. Shortly after a hike, Nelligan’s “st” sounds started staining when he spoke, and he went behind to a alloy for some-more tests.

At 3 p.m. Nov. 27, 2013, a day before Thanksgiving, Nelligan and his wife, Julie, sat in a neurologist’s office.

Electrical signals from Nelligan’s mind were unwell to strech his muscles, a alloy explained. Nelligan had ALS, amyotrophic parallel sclerosis, also famous as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is a singular neurological illness that kills off all a muscles in a body, one shred after another. The illness is unpredictable, a causes are mostly unknown, and there is no cure.

Like a unfamiliar denunciation never used after college, muscles blur divided as a mind stops promulgation a signals to trigger movement. Usually, a widespread palm or a feet drops first. The illness attacks that area, afterwards moves on to a next. Meanwhile, a throat and tongue muscles also mangle until swallowing becomes impossible.

The illness ate divided during scarcely all Nelligan values in life — a ability to pronounce with friends, to chuck a dog toy, to bike a marathon.

Nelligan became a geologist so he could bum around outside. An contestant who played soccer from third class by college, Nelligan reveled in pulling his body. Fifteen years ago he started training search-and-rescue dogs, and went scarcely everywhere with his golden retriever, Tia, and German Shepherd, Echo.

Friends saw him as a male of movement, and that enclosed his mouth. Withdrawn for many of his life, he remade when he jumped into internal politics and drew people to him with vehement conversations and enthusiasm.

After his diagnosis, Nelligan swam until Jan when he could no longer transparent a H2O with his right arm. The subsequent month, he gave adult route regulating when a jolts from disproportionate turf caused frightful neck pain. By June, he built a plates on a opposite when he emptied a dishwasher given he couldn’t lift his arms to a cupboards.

The detriment from ALS never stops. Nelligan knew that eventually he would be incompetent to move, incompetent to speak, incompetent to breathe on his possess – unless he chose Death with Dignity.

Nelligan carried an picture in his conduct of ALS formed on a knowledge of a crony in a 1990s. The crony died inept in bed and spent a finish of his life desperate, sticking to newfound religion.

Nelligan refused to see himself in that bed.

“Even before we had a diagnosis of ALS, we knew in my heart of hearts, if it was ALS, we would not concede it to take a full course,” he pronounced this summer.

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Amyotrophic parallel sclerosis, also famous as Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks engine neurons in a brain. As a neurons die, a mind loses a ability to send signals, and muscles atrophy from miss of use. ALS typically starts in one partial of a physique — customarily a widespread palm or feet — and moves on to other flesh groups. Eventually, a studious loses all movement, including a ability to pronounce or swallow.

Wandering by a Mount Hood timberland during one of his backcountry patrols, Nelligan illusory only disintegrating into a wilderness. He’d live in a woods until illness overcame him.

He suspicion to himself, “No frickin’ way.” He didn’t wish his genocide to be creepy and lonely.


Nelligan was famous for throwing himself into projects, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and devoting hours to light rail advisory play and Clackamas County issues in further to his outdoor pursuits.

After his diagnosis, he close himself off from friends, swapping between rejection and depression. Then he attempted neck surgery, anticipating that fusing 3 vertebrae would soothe a consistent twitching of his muscles and withering pain in his arms and legs.

When that didn’t work, Nelligan done his illness a project.

He picked a date in Jul and asked some friends – his center circle, he calls them – to join him on a travel adult to a Cascade shallow called Tom, Dick and Harry, a place he has visited dozens of times. It incited out to be a ideal day — warm, balmy and clear.

It was a wily proposition. A month earlier, Nelligan had depressed during a bottom of Dog Mountain, when his German Shepherd Echo tugged during a control he tied to his waist. Without core or arm strength to negate his fall, Nelligan finished adult with a bloody nose and smashed face.

On a Jul hike, Julie and his friends managed a dogs. Nelligan complacent his arms by tucking his hands into a belt of his fanny container until he indispensable transformation poles to navigate hilly parts.

At a top, he hold his breath, and Julie helped him eat a snack. He stood a prolonged time during a corner of a ridge, that towers over Mirror Lake and overlooks Mount Hood.

It’s one of Nelligan’s favorite hikes, and he wanted to contend goodbye. At that moment, as he surveyed a perspective once again, he knew: This is where his remains will be scattered.


Since Oregon became a initial state in a republic to pass a Death with Dignity Act 20 years ago, about 750 people have died regulating a law. Yet even as he started meditative about finale his possess life, Nelligan was clueless about a sum and accessible resources.

His estate profession suggested him during a commencement of summer that he could make his wife’s life easier if he died underneath insurance of a Death with Dignity law rather than leave doubts about a resources of his death.

About that same time, Nelligan listened an eight-minute Morning Edition shred on NPR about a lady who prepared her family and friends by entertainment them together and articulate about her skeleton to finish her life.

The square was a revelation. Months of self-imposed siege finished as he reached out to friends and family. He emailed a promote to 6 friends, his sisters and his step-mother. Support flooded Nelligan’s email inbox, and he shortly invited a friends to dinner.

The friends had all witnessed a genocide of desired ones, though never had they been such an insinuate partial of a experience. They were energized by this new conversation. “You don’t customarily pronounce about all a topics we do as friends,” Cathie Blosser told Nelligan afterward, enlivening him. “It’s an respect to be partial of a organisation that’s articulate about this.”

They would work by this together.


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Nelligan disturbed many about how his comparison sisters would react.

When Nelligan left for college, his relatives bought an halcyon equine plantation outward Gettysburg. The retirement dream came with a lot of work, restoring a plantation and scheming for his mother’s equine competitions. She never told Nelligan or his sisters, though in further to a tough work, his mom hardly slept and lived in earthy anguish as she went by menopause.

In a open of 1975, a companionship hermit during Ohio Wesleyan University, summoned him upstairs at 12:30 a.m. for a phone call.

“Your mother’s gone,” his father said.

“Why? Why did she leave you?” Nelligan asked.

“No, your mother’s dead.”

She had shot herself in a stomach with a .22 rifle, afterwards put a nozzle in her mouth and dismissed again.

Nelligan saw parallels between his mother’s pang and his own. ALS also deprived him of nap and caused near-constant pain.

His sisters saw parallels, too, though not in his preference to finish his life.

Nancy McGarry, Nelligan’s oldest sister primarily prayed her hermit had Parkinson’s illness instead of ALS. Their father lived about 15 years with Parkinson’s, before failing in 1993. She knew how vicious ALS would be for Nelligan, and she accepted his position.

“If something like that happened to me,” McGarry told Nelligan, “I would only wish my father to take me out to a internal widespread and put me in a center and let a Mack lorry run over me.”


Nelligan knew that as a illness progressed, he would remove his autonomy, peculiarity of life and a clarity of grace – a 3 tip concerns voiced by terminally ill patients who have used Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. To equivocate finale adult inept and desperate, he indispensable to brand a indicate when a life he wants is radically over though he still has a engine skills to take a deadly medication authorised underneath a law.

In late September, a full year after a St. Helens climb, Nelligan met with his neurologist, Dr. Kimberly Goslin, during a Portland Providence ALS Center. After questions about hospice forms and clinical trials, Nelligan cut to a chase: “Will a course of a illness in my arms make my arms totally invalid during some point?”

“Yes,” Goslin said. “There will strech a indicate where there is no duty in your arms.”

Nelligan sat silently.

Goslin resumed a checkup. Nelligan could no longer lift his elbows divided from his sides. His arms sagged when he attempted to reason them during a 90-degree angle from his body. But he could lift his legs opposite a vigour of her palms. When he overwhelmed his forefinger to his thumb, Goslin struggled to mangle a clasp.

On a expostulate home to Oak Grove, Nelligan gazed during a tumble leaflet along McLoughlin Boulevard. He wondered aloud how prolonged he’d final once a heat forsaken and a rains came.

Most people with ALS die from respiratory infections, and Nelligan’s latest pulmonary duty exam indicated he had 6 months to live.

That week, as he illusory losing use of his arms, he panicked. He cataloged all mislaid in a past year and how many remained. In a midst of his romantic emergency, his neck pain was roughly frightful one night, withdrawal him irritable.

“I don’t know how many longer we can take this,” Nelligan told his wife.

Julie reminded him that he’s pronounced that scarcely each week given a spring. In that time, he’s already taken a lot, so maybe he can take more.

“You don’t consider I’m going to do this,” Nelligan responded.

“No, we consider you’re going to do this,” she said. “I don’t know what your timeline is.”

Nelligan didn’t know, either.


A week later, on Oct. 4, Nelligan and his center round collected around his square table.

He asked their advice. “I wish to know what we guys competence be meditative if we were in my shoes. When do we contend when?”

No one felt prepared to answer.

“How do we know?” Joan Hamilton said.

“Well, that’s because you’re here,” Nelligan responded.

“We can’t presumably know,” Estelle Morley said. “We’re not in your head.”

As they watched a late summer sunset, they offering to assistance him use a mechanism or expostulate him to Starbucks in a mornings, though Nelligan’s disappointment grew.

“It all only reminds me of loss, of what we can no longer do,” Nelligan said. “And my regard is, it’s going to turn about apportion of life and not peculiarity of life.”

When they still hold behind on sketch a line, he offering one: Maybe when he can no longer pet his 4 dogs and cats.

Nelligan had already given adult spooning with Echo on a building each morning and rubbing a dog’s sides. He and a German shepherd could still snuggle heads.

When mosquitos gathering a organisation inside, Nelligan capped a contention by display a Mount St. Helens video. He could hardly lift his hands from a armrests of a chair to daub along with a windy Ulrich Schnauss soundtrack.

“Heaven, assistance take me behind to a dream that life has been only once. Answer my prayer, take divided all a fear, and let me tumble asleep,” a synthesized voice sings, only as a video shows Nelligan reaching a orange dwindle that outlines a summit. “You know we have to let it go. Don’t cry. So tough to contend goodbye.”


For a month, Nelligan left his 3 Death with Dignity drugs during a compounding pharmacy. It was a comfort to know they were there, though he wasn’t prepared to collect them up.
On Nov. 1, friends and county leaders respected his village use by installing a board in his respect during a Park Avenue light rail hire in Milwaukie. Nelligan attended, though his transformation was apropos some-more limited and unpleasant day by day.
His debate during a eventuality noted a branch indicate for him and for Julie. They embraced, crying, when he handed off a microphone. The tears continued off and on for days.
Julie withdrew from her conversing use to concentration totally on their remaining time together. Nelligan craved a association though knew he was miserable to be around. His mood run-down with his body.
On Tuesday night, he couldn’t sleep. He kept choking on a thick white spit his throat constructed whenever his physique was distressed. He got out of bed Wednesday meaningful a answer.
Today would be a day.

Nelligan’s closest friends had prepared for his preference over a summer, though a abruptness astounded them.

Estelle Morley talked to Nelligan Tuesday night and knew he was carrying a severe time. Early Wednesday, she sent an email to a rest of Nelligan’s center circle, enlivening them to strech out.

But within hours, it was Nelligan calling.

It was time to contend goodbye. Terry Dolan and Cathie Blosser picked adult his prescriptions, and during 2 p.m., a center round collected during his home.

An hour later, Nelligan took a deadly cocktail of medications.

He died within a half-hour.

— Molly Harbarger

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