Riding for life against the odds

SUN JOURNAL

Determination: For the third year, an ALS patient will ride from New York to Washington to raise money to fight the disease.

May 03, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

Looking down at the pink granite tombstone engraved with the name Gehrig, Christopher K. Pendergast felt a pang of familiarity. He never met the New York Yankees' great. Never saw him play ball. Gehrig was already dead eight years when Pendergast came bawling into this world.

But the burly New Yorker with the Grizzly Adams beard felt the pang nonetheless. Unlike fans who have left a faded Yankees cap, worn-out baseballs and miniature bats at Gehrig's grave in Valhalla, N.Y., Pendergast's connection to Henry Louis Gehrig derives not from the sport at which the first baseman excelled. It comes from the fatal disease that bears Gehrig's name.

"When I relate to Gehrig, I don't relate to him as an athlete at all. I relate to him as one patient to another, struggling and fighting," says Pendergast, 51, a teacher of gifted and talented children who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

"It was a very somber and sobering experience."

Today, Pendergast returns to Kensico Cemetery to kick off a 350-mile journey in his motorized wheelchair to raise money and awareness of ALS, the fatal degenerative neuromuscular disease that afflicts an estimated 30,000 Americans.

The trip will take him from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. It is the third year he has undertaken such a ride.

Pendergast's wheelchair convoy expects to arrive in Maryland May 12.

Dave Teague, of Crofton, and Larry Katz, of Baltimore, who joined Pendergast's ride last year have since died from the disease.

"The soundbite I use is that we are dying men riding for life," says Pendergast.

"It's not our life we're going to save, because any drug money or research will come out long after we're dead. We do not want this disease to continue striking Americans and detroying our lives and our families."

During Pendergast's three-day stay here, he will meet with Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, a leading ALS researcher at the Johns Hopkins University.

Lou Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse, but he lost his battle with ALS in less than two years. Pendergast so far has beaten the odds.

The disease usually claims its victims within two to five years of diagnosis. The Long Island teacher learned of his disease on Columbus Day weekend, 1993 -- 6 1/2 years ago

The disease robs the body of its muscular functions. Patients slowly lose the ability to grip a fork, walk or talk. Death is often the result of respiratory failure when the lungs can no longer breathe on their own.

"When I was first diagnosed, I looked around for support groups, I looked around for information," says Pendergast, married and the father of two.

He found little.

"The sense of isolation is quite profound. You're battling a disease that few people are aware of and understand and understand well."

He came to understand the reality and frustration of living with ALS: the high cost of medicine; battles with insurance companies to pay for mechanized wheelchairs, voice machines, home health care; the competition for research dollars.

"Rather than being part of the problem, rather than complaining and looking to point fingers at other people, I decided to take the initiative to try and do something that would change that landscape," says Pendergast.

In May 1998, he embarked on his first "Ride for Life," coinciding with ALS Awareness Month. He has raised more than $100,000 for the cause from pledges, donations and sales of T-shirts.

Pendergast rode a scooter the first year. Now he uses a motorized wheelchair with a toggle switch. He has only partial use of his hands and arms.

He can walk short distances but relies on a scooter to get him around Dickinson Avenue School, where he teaches three days a week. About 80 volunteers take turns driving him the 45 minutes to and from work.

His voice retains its clarity. He laughs all the time.

The friends and colleagues who have taught with Pendergast at an elementary school in East Northport, N.Y., aren't surprised by his determination or passion.

Gary Burns says that when he learned that his friend had been diagnosed with ALS, Pendergast told him, "Gary, I'm not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of not living." Burns adds, "He has spent the last six and a half years living the daylights out of every single day."

Known as "Mister P" at his grade school, Pendergast is remembered as the guy with the iguana on his head, the educator capable of coaxing a shy child into leading tours of the school's nature habitat, the co-worker singing "My Girl" off-tune at a retirement party.

"I think he believes he was tapped by God to be the messenger," says Burns, a public-school principal who has known Pendergast since 1987. "Statistically speaking, Chris should have died three years ago. This is an amazing undertaking. It's incredibly grueling."

It's a road trip, but not one any of the frat boys in "Animal House" would have undertaken. The Pendergast tour stops at City Halls, schools and baseball stadiums along the way.

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