By Dedra Cordle
When Dave Starner was asked to speak with students in Adrian Dennis’ English class about living with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he wasn’t sure how he or his message would be received.
“Knowing how I was in high school,” he said with a grimace, “I’m not certain I would have paid that much attention.”
Though visions of his younger self kept dancing in his head, he decided the prospect of coming across uninterested teenagers was well worth the risk. It turned out that the reality of the day was quite different than the one imagined.
On Oct. 27 at 10:20 a.m., Starner faced his first class; 39 minutes later, he faced the second.
That cycle repeated once more in the afternoon and much to Starner’s surprise, there was no boredom to be found on any of their faces.
“They were all very engaged,” he said. “I would almost say that were locked in.”
It might have helped that he spoke bluntly about his struggles coming to grips with his diagnosis and from the heart about how he tries to maintain a positive outlook despite his life-threatening illness.
It was 2003, Starner told the students, when he first began to notice symptoms.
“I had trouble buttoning buttons and tying my shoes,” Starner said. “I didn’t think much of it besides thinking I had to go to the gym.”
As time progressed, so did his symptoms. When he underwent rigorous testing in 2009, he finally had a name to his illness.
“I cried,” he said. “I cried like a baby.”
Typically, he went to appointments with a companion – his wife, his father, a sibling, a friend – but he received that diagnosis all alone.
“I went out after, had a few beers and tried to figure out how I was going to tell my family.”
The first few years, he said, were so hard he contemplated suicide.
When a student asked what brought him back from that mindset, he said it was his loved ones that helped.
“I have good friends and family and they are what I fall back on.”
He said he has good days and bad days with debilitating moments.
“I’m in a lot of pain,” Starner said. “I have chronic fatigue and I get muscle cramps in my neck and limbs and it feels like I’m being knifed.”
He said sometimes that feeling can last for five minutes or more.
Starner said that even though ALS has weakened his body, he is not going to let it take away his passions in life such as his love for family, for music and for nature. He said he has plans to take a family trip to California where they will visit Big Sur, the Redwood National Park and cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway.
He told the students to refuse to let life’s obstacles get in the way of their goals and their happiness.
“You have to live life on your own terms,” he said.
His message resonated with the students, and they said it is not just because they recently finished reading Mitch Albom’s bestselling memoir “Tuesdays with Morrie” which offers an inspirational message from the late Morris Schwartz who died in 1995 from ALS.
“It (the messages from the book and from Starner) has made me more open with myself,” said sophomore Dash McConnell “and I’m not scared to talk with myself anymore.”
Dennis, who was given a copy of the book at his high school graduation in 2003 and who gives a copy to anyone who asks, said he invited Starner to take part in ‘A Tuesday with Dave’ because he believes his experiences and his positive outlook on life can provide some inspiration to the students as they deal with their own set of challenges. And, judging by the comments from several students, it seems to have already made an impact.