“I want people to know I’m just not a diagnosis.”
When Melissa isn’t struggling with some activity that she once could do while spinning a basketball on a fingertip, Melissa is the Melissa she’s always been. “I want to be viewed as strong, emotionally and physically; compassionate, empathetic and loyal.” And a really good basketball player.
Melissa Erickson came to the University of Washington with the first recruiting class of coach June Daugherty. After a strong career at her Colorado high school and an even more impressive traveling AAU team, Melissa had four universities interested in her. “I remember walking into Hec Ed and thinking, wow, this is so cool!” It was her first recruiting visit, but “as soon as I came home I committed to the UW.”
It’s a decision she’s never regretted, even during her junior year season when the team hit the skids. But their fortunes turned around in senior year and despite Mo’s (that’s what Melissa goes by with her teammates) ACL injury, which sidelined her for the end of the season, she was right in there cheering her team on to a PAC-10 title.
After playing four years at UW, Melissa tried her hand at coaching. She picked up a couple gigs, her first year at a small school in Louisiana, which taught her more about the reality of race relations in the south than it did about basketball. Happy to leave behind the Confederate flags, she took another graduate coaching job at UNLV in Las Vegas.
But she just couldn’t shake the urge. That itch to be out on the floor making the plays rather than calling them from the bench. So she pursued an agent, who landed her on a team in Krefeld, Germany, and in the fall of ’02 she went to Europe for the first time. “I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted to do. It was just a blast. I didn’t get paid very much. I basically got paid to travel and experience the culture.” And, what could be better? Paid to play basketball.
After the season in Europe she returned to the States and got a job working at Echo Glen, the state’s juvenile rehab center, in the drug and alcohol unit. “I really enjoyed it and felt I had found my niche. I’ve always wanted to help people who are less fortunate, and had been intrigued with at-risk youth.”
Soon autumn was coming and with it the migration back to Europe for women still playing. A friend of Mo’s was playing in Portugal and she was invited there for a trial and then made the team.
“Around then I started feeling that my body was kind of different. At the try-out I just figured I was out of shape. I remember not being able to get off the ground, and my balance was really off. But I played through it. I lost weight and got in better shape, but my deficiencies continued and began to get pretty evident. So I started to work out harder. I just figured that whatever was wrong with me could be overcome with getting stronger. That’s how athletes work, right? Well, obviously, that didn’t happen.”
Muscle weakness is a hallmark initial sign in ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), occurring in approximately 60% of patients. Early symptoms vary with each individual, but usually include tripping, dropping things, abnormal fatigue of the arms and/or legs, slurred speech, muscle cramps and twitches and/or uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying.
In September of 2005 she started going to doctors to figure out what was going on. She remembers the date, September 18, when she got the initial diagnosis that “it was a motor neuron disease of some kind but the doctors didn’t know what.”
The process was frustrating. At first doctors thought it was a pinched nerve that could be cured easily with surgery. Melissa’s biggest concern at the time was how she would be able to take time off from work since she hadn’t yet accumulated sick time. “Man, if only it was that easy!
“With ALS there’s no blood test, nothing that says for certain, this is what you have. So the doctors kept coming back with what it wasn’t – it wasn’t cancer, it wasn’t MS. While I was happy that those were cancelled out I kept wondering, but what is it?”
Melissa was referred to the regional specialist at Virginia Mason, Dr. Ravits, who continues as her neurologist. (Melissa has nothing but praise for him. “He’s overflowing in compassion. He immerses his life in finding a cure and a treatment.”) Ravits takes on patients “that are a little different than the normal ALS.” Melissa’s young age, 26, and gender put her squarely in the column of ‘different.’
Most people who develop ALS are between the ages of 40 and 70, with an average age of 55 at the time of diagnosis. ALS is 20% more common in men than in women.
By Thanksgiving the diagnosis was confirmed.
When her doctor told her, he waited for a sign of understanding from Melissa. “I didn’t know what it was. I had heard of both ALS and Lou Gehrig’s disease and didn’t know they were the same thing. Even when they were saying it was a motor neuron disease, I didn’t know the gravity of that diagnosis.”
Understandably, the news hit hard, but with the conviction of an athlete she immediately focused on how to fix it. She tried alternative treatments “some of which were terrible and took my money and offered nothing; and others which offered, not a cure, but ways to treat it through dieting and other things.”
Fortunately, as the bad news came, Melissa’s friends and family stepped in. Her parents moved to Seattle from Colorado. Her girlfriend Jessica, who she started dating just a month after she was diagnosed, “has been there pretty much the whole way.”
(Melissa, right, with Jessica, left)
And then there were the teammates. Still getting her back, they started the Melissa Erickson Foundation to raise funds to help Mo manage the costs of the disease. www.melissaerickson.org
The dollars raised “are for anything I need. A trip to see friends, a bed that will be more comfortable, anything that helps me. I am surrounded by just, the most amazing people. My words can’t do justice to how awesome they are.”
In his famous retirement speech, Lou Gehrig told the crowd: “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?”
Listening to Mo, I quickly understand that her teammates provide more than monetary support. They sustain the link to the Melissa inside, the one a stranger can’t see. To them, Mo is still Mo, the one who had their back on the floor and who might have snapped them with a towel in the locker room after the game.
“Melissa was a 6’2 reserve small forward who could hit the 3 and bang with the best of them. She was an enforcer who wore a goofy white headband back when no other white girls were wearing white headbands. She was different. Melissa never met a sprint that she liked and enjoyed partying far more than studying. I was a young and energetic first year D1 assistant coach and I was gung ho about class checks, discipline and following the rules. As you can imagine, I was Melissa’s worst nightmare and she was my biggest challenge. That might be why I loved her so much.”
- Shimmy Gray-Miller, Head Coach St. Louis University women’s basketball, former UW assistant coach. Read her full story about Melissa here: http://www.coachshimmy.com/blog.html
“ALS is kind of a funny disease because you lose parts of yourself gradually,” says Melissa growing quiet.
Until now our interview has reviewed a chronological progression from the University of Washington to where we sit today, Melissa in her electric wheelchair and I at her kitchen counter. It’s the first time we’ve met, but the conversation has flowed easily like two friends catching up after a long time apart.
She takes a moment to resist the tears that come despite her effort to hold them back. “I’m trying to get good at this so I don’t cry every time,” she explains, as if her left-handed hook has been eluding her.
“I mourn, I mourn the loss of basketball and the athlete. But even when that was gone, I still had so much more, I still walked and could do everything else. And then you lose walking and you mourn that and then you lose the ability to sit up and you mourn that. It’s like a never ending grief/acceptance, grief/acceptance cycle. And I think that’s the hardest part of living with this disease. I continuously say, if it just stops here I’ll be fine, but obviously it didn’t really listen to what I wanted.”
No, what Melissa wants is not part of the ALS agenda. So, like any good basketball player, she’s working on her defense.
Her basketball career and the incredible friends she made help sustain Melissa physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Even today, while she’s trying to get comfortable in the wheelchair she has relied on for the past two years, I can see in her smile that the feeling of running the floor is not far away.
Melissa is living her life everyday with strength, optimism, and humility. Though memory is leaking from her muscles it is still strong in her spirit -- memories of the adrenaline rush from a game, and the camaraderie of teammates afterwards, win or lose, on the court or off.
Basketball is that drug her doctor can’t prescribe, and it may be the thing that is most effective in her struggle against this insidious disease.
(Mo with her white headband at left)
Mo’s not-so secrets for How She Does It?
- “I surround myself with close friends and family.”
- Healthy denial – she doesn’t descend into interminable Google searches about the disease.
- Vodka – it’s part of the denial part but also important to being able to let loose and have fun
- “I try to view myself as normal as much as possible. I’m pretty independent and stubborn, which helps get me through my daily life with ALS.”
What books has Melissa read recently? In a book group now, she’s “super into reading recently.”
- Water for Elephants (“love it!”), by Sara Gruen
- Little Bee (“I recommend!” Amazon Best of the Month 2/09: “… braids the fates of a 16-year-old Nigerian orphan who calls herself Little Bee, and a well-off British couple”), by Chris Cleave
- Say You’re One of Them (“tells of the horrors faced by young people throughout Africa”) by Uwem Akpan
- and Mo’s confession, The Twilight Series, by Stephanie Meyer
Whom does Melissa want me to interview next?
- Sonya Elliott, a fashion model, basketball player, and designer. Check her out at Peace, Love, Basketball www.peacelovebasketball.com . 50% of their March profits go to the Melissa Erickson Foundation. “Sonya’s is a story of huge tragedy, which she’s come out with so much grace.”
What Can You Do to Support Melissa?
- Make a Pay Pal contribution on www.melissaerickson.org
- Buy a cool t-shirt this month at www.peacelovebasketball.com
- Stop by Jabu’s Pub, near Seattle Center, and enjoy one of two drinks named in Melissa’s honor: the Motini and the Motail. $1.00 from each drink will go to the Melissa Erickson foundation http://jabuspub.com/Home_Page.php
- Let Melissa and all of us know how her life and story has made an impact on you by leaving a comment by clicking the link below.
- Janet Pelz