by Melanie McCullough
East Carolina University and the Greenville community have long been committed to striking out ALS. The fatal neuromuscular disease robs people of the ability to walk, talk, swallow and breathe. In 2006, it claimed the life of former ECU baseball coach Keith LeClair, who had to step down from his job because of ALS four years earlier.
It has been nearly 13 years since Coach LeClair’s death, but his legacy and the commitment of the community to defeat ALS remain strong.
For the past 16 years, the ECU baseball team has raised money and awareness for the fight against ALS through the Keith LeClair Classic. Over the past four years, the team has done even more. Each March, they have gone the entire month without shaving, raising more than $35,000 for The ALS Association North Carolina Chapter through their “Mustache March.” WNCT Sports Director and Walk to Defeat ALS® emcee Brian Bailey has joined in the fun, and this year the baseball teams from the University of Michigan and the University of Memphis participated, too.
“It is the greatest of causes,” said ECU baseball coach Cliff Godwin, who played for Coach LeClair and is committed to fighting ALS in his memory.
ECU Dowdy Student Stores has also joined the fight against ALS, raising more than $15,000 the last three years and generating awareness through the sale of “Strike Out ALS” t-shirts at Dowdy Student Stores and the souvenir booth at Clark-LeClair Stadium. The shirts are once again available through June or while supplies last.
Fighting this disease that does not yet have effective treatments or a cure is not new to those in Greenville, noted Jerry Dawson, an ECU alumnus and the president and CEO of The ALS Association North Carolina Chapter.
“I remember walking with Coach LeClair and the ECU baseball team during our first walk in Greenville in 2000, before he was diagnosed,” Dawson recalled. “He shared his family’s ALS story with me, and over the years, the entire community would come to know all about ALS through his personal heart-wrenching journey.”
The 20th annual Down East Walk to Defeat ALS® will be held Saturday, May 11, starting and ending at ECU’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Participants can sign up at www.alsnc.org.
“I have never been more proud of my community and university than at our Walk,” said Mark Anthony, the chairman of the board of The ALS Association NC Chapter and an ECU alumnus. Anthony recalled the vision of former ECU president Dr. Leo Jenkins, and his commitment to the community and university. Dr. Jenkins “dared and prodded eastern North Carolina to dream big,” Anthony said. “He helped instill in the region a sense of pride and can-do spirit that never waned.”
That spirit is evident today in the support given to people with ALS and their families in eastern North Carolina. “We’ve had tremendous community support at our Down East Walks to Defeat ALS®,” Anthony said. “I have felt Dr. Jenkins’ spirit, compassion and fight.”
While raising money and awareness are critical to defeating ALS, so is the work of the ALS Association-supported multidisciplinary ALS clinics, which are known to provide the best possible care for people living with the disease. The Jim “Catfish” Hunter ALS Clinic at Vidant Medical Center is one of five such clinics in the state, and the only one in eastern North Carolina.
“The multidisciplinary model has been shown repeatedly to offer the best quality-of-life outcomes for our patients dealing with this devastating disorder,” said Robert Frere, M.D., medical director of the clinic. “We are a team of specialists dedicated to providing care to people with ALS. What our clinic offers to patients is so important.”
What the clinic offers is care from a multidisciplinary team featuring a neurologist, social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, respiratory therapist, nurse, neuropsychologist and dietician, all coming together to meet the specific challenges faced by someone living with ALS.
Progress is being made in the fight against ALS. Since the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, The ALS Association has committed more than $89 million to research. Scientists have discovered five new genes connected to ALS, and the first ALS treatment since 1995 was approved by the FDA in 2017.
But there is still work to be done. The ALS Association will not stop fighting until there is a cure, and looks forward to continuing the fight alongside the committed people of the Greenville community.