A Public Life

Voice of the People

A crippling disease has stolen Betty Ann Krahnke's ability to speak, but she hasn't let it silence her.

Cover Story

April 11, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff

The letter, unsigned, showed up in a local newspaper last month. Its stark message stung Betty Ann Krahnke: Isn't it time Krahnke gave up her seat on the Montgomery County Council?

"Most of you don't know how badly she has deteriorated," the letter said. "She now needs helpers to drive her, help her walk and stand. But worst of all," it continued, "her speech is so unintelligible that Channel 9 had to print subtitles." Surely she can't complete her term without "great and costly assistance." Her insistence on doing so "is not admirable, but sad and unfair to her constituents."

The letter was not the first disappointment the 56-year-old Krahnke had faced almost daily since she announced last summer that she'd developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the deadly degenerative muscle disease known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

It had been shock enough to learn that her body would fail, that her muscles, one by one, would cease to work, starting with her voice. For a woman who had lived by her words, by her powers of persuasion, to learn she would be so silenced was tragic irony. Her mind was about to be trapped inside her body.

But she had vowed to press on, to continue to serve the constituents who have elected and re-elected her, a rare and revered Republican in a Democratic county, Maryland's largest and most affluent. These days, the esteem in which she is held can be measured by the silence in the council chambers when she tries to speak. Sometimes the only sound is her breathing as she struggles to form a word to argue for one more cause.

Her courage surprises no one who knows her.

Still, some are uncomfortable witnessing her decline.

Why doesn't she do her dying privately?

Why won't she stop talking?

Betty Ann penned a detailed response to the anonymous letter writer, but the simple answer is that serving in elected office isn't her job, it's her life.

For most of the last three decades, the girlish voice of Betty Ann Krahnke has been synonymous with the quality of life in Montgomery County. Less traffic. More police. Better snow removal. So when she began to slur her words last April, people noticed. Had she taken to drink? Suffered a stroke?

By July, when doctors determined the cause of her flattened sound and drooping smile, already half of the nerves that control her muscles were under attack. Ultimately, the doctors told her, she would be paralyzed.

Betty Ann and her husband shared the devastating news with family and close friends, weeping with them. But she resolved that the public would be spared her pain. She kept whatever emotions she felt private.

She sought ways to ensure that her colleagues would not be distracted from business, making the usual heavy demands of staff and insisting that those who couldn't understand her just say so.

The disease stole her trademark smile, but her blue eyes still sparkled. She kept up her good humor. Most people with ALS live two to five years, she told her three daughters, "but you know I've always been above average."

One of her early goals was to finish her re-election campaign without applying for a handicapped parking permit. Betty Ann's opponent had obtained one after an auto accident, and she quipped that the Democrat could walk better than she could. But her slower speech forced her to halve her four-minute televised campaign speech.

By November, after her re-election, her voice was too soft to hear above the din at the Thanksgiving table, so she began using a portable microphone. By December, her hands were moving slowly, but she sewed a glittery stocking for her new grandchild anyway; what matter if it still carried a straight pin or two on Christmas Eve? Despite the effort it now took, she kept putting on the jewelry she picked out so carefully each day. When the council president suggested she didn't have to attend every meeting, her response was a stern glare.

Her calendar remained full, with speaking engagements and political events mixed in with parties to mark birthdays and engagements and trips away with her husband, Wilson, an accountant.

If she couldn't work the phones at this year's annual charity phone-athon at the Jewish Community Center in Bethesda, she would provide moral support. She accepted invitations to conferences a year away.

In fact, Betty Ann did everything she used to do. She simply got up earlier to do it.

Why was she still working, colleagues wondered; they'd be on a beach somewhere. But as her determination to stay on the job became clear, the council's staff responded, even seeking out ALS experts to learn how to help her.

Once, in December, her tough veneer cracked. She'd been asked to give the farewell tribute to a retiring colleague. In mid-speech, she went silent, then started crying. Soon, everyone was crying -- council members, staff, clerks, reporters.

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