William Dean Westerlund dies at 31

Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 5, he ran his own digital business and had a wide circle of friends

April 21, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

William Dean Westerlund, who overcame a muscular disability to run a digital slide-show business, died April 14 at Howard County General Hospital. For the past 26 years, the Ellicott City resident had muscular dystrophy, and he died of complications from the disease. He was 31.

"He had courage," said his mother, Linda Barrack of Dickerson. "Most everything he wanted to do, he accomplished. He made his mark on the world."

Born in Washington and raised in Damascus and Ellicott City, he was 5 years old when doctors diagnosed him with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and told his parents he might not live past age 13. By 9, he needed a manual wheelchair to move around in.

"As Bill got older, he slowly started losing many of his physical abilities, but his mind remained sharp and witty," said his sister, Justine Westerlund of Ellicott City.

Family members said that at 14, he lost the use of his arms and had to use an electric wheelchair. At 16, he had surgery to put a metal rod in his back to keep his spine from curving. During his late teens, he started losing the ability to swallow and had a feeding tube inserted.

"He never complained. He always had a smile on his face. He was brave," said his father, William George Westerlund of Ellicott City.

Mr. Westerlund attended classes at Mount Hebron High School and graduated with his class in 1997. He rode a school bus for disabled students and referred to the vehicle as "the short bus."

He later had to go on a machine to help him breathe through the night and had to have a ventilator placed on his wheelchair for help his breathing during the day.

Family members said Mr. Westerlund lost the ability to steer his wheelchair, but its manufacturer developed a fiber-optic switch that gave him mobility.

He and his brother, David, also of Ellicott City, founded Habitat Productions in 2004. They created digital slide shows for birthdays, funerals and commercial ventures, such as real estate jobs.

"Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy may limit our muscle function but it has done nothing to limit our creativity and ambition to own our own business. We have an extensive portfolio that includes a wide range of contracts," he and his brother, who also has muscular dystrophy, wrote on their website, habitatproductions.net.

Mr. Westerlund's venture was described in an ARC of Howard County publication. He and his brother received an achievement award from the Maryland Association of Community Services.

Mr. Westerlund followed football and became a devoted Dallas Cowboys fan. He also liked professional wrestling and visited Chicago and Detroit for WrestleMania events. He also downloaded movies and stayed in touch with his friends.

He met Cal Ripken Jr. at Camden Yards and attended his record-breaking consecutive game in 1995.

"He learned how to text with a voice recognition system," said another sister, Alexis Westerlund of Ellicott City. "He communicated constantly with people."

She said that as his medical condition advanced, and he could not leave the family home because he would feel cold, he nevertheless remained connected to the outside world.

"Bill thrived on the computer," sister Justine Westerlund said. "It kept him connected to the people he loved. He learned how to text people via [instant messaging], and he would entertain many daily on Facebook. His sense of humor was unparalleled. He was famous for one-liners. … He loved to laugh, and he loved to make others laugh."

She said that her brother was often in pain, but he rarely discussed it.

"He did not let his physical condition hold him back from enjoying life," she said.

Services were held Monday at Arlington Baptist Church, where he was a member.

In addition to his mother, father, sisters and brother, survivors include two other brothers, Richard Westerlund and Sean Westerlund, both of Ellicott City; another sister, Katie Westerlund of Ellicott City; his stepmother, Sylvia Westerlund of Ellicott City; his stepfather, Jim Barrack of Dickerson; his grandparents, Gene and Mary Lynn Younkin of Round Hill, Va.; and his grandmother, Betty Dawson of Manassas, Va.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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