By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
ARLINGTON — Mike Kelly makes it look easier than it is.
He gets around in a wheelchair. He’s successful in his job. He likes to laugh, and he loves his wife.
But Kelly’s body is failing. Paralysis is coming. Eventually, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis will take him down.
“Looking at the man in the mirror each morning is hard for me. It isn’t without anger,” Kelly said. “What grounds me, though, is that I know that there are no guarantees in life. Only a fool would believe that it couldn’t be his turn at the next highway intersection.”
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. According to the ALS Association, people in the early stages of the disease have muscle weakness, especially involving their arms and legs, their speech, swallowing and breathing. It only gets worse. In time, all muscles atrophy and cease to function. There is no cure.
Mike and his wife, Teki Kelly, both 49, met online in 2002.
“Our deal-breaker lists were pretty darn close,” he said.
Together they have four grown children. They moved to Arlington in 2004 and were married in 2006.
“It was the second rodeo for both of us and we were excited about life,” Teki said.
Around Thanksgiving 2009, however, the couple realized something was wrong with Mike.
“I couldn’t clip my toenails,” he said.
After several tests, a neurologist gave the Kellys the bad news.
“I only knew that Lou Gehrig’s disease was a bad one,” Teki said. “Hearing the diagnosis was a pisser. I was so mad. I wanted a pity party so bad, but there was no sense in having Mike comfort me.”
The song “Live Like You Were Dying” by country music star Tim McGraw helped them face their new life, they said.
“We were so caught up in our busy lives, we had to cut out all the noise,” Teki said. “It was horrible that Mike had to get this before we learned to slow down, breathe and shut out the drama in our lives. That part has been very good for us.”
Teki Kelly’s longtime friend, GW Construction owner Brian Wohlhuter, along with other friends and family members rallied to help out. They built a fence to keep the Kellys’ dog in so Mike didn’t have to chase the pet. They built wheelchair ramps and remodeled the house to make Mike’s life easier.
The Kellys’ friends Lyle and Shelly Bates, owners of Local Motion in Puyallup, gave them a wheelchair van, which Mike calls “Big Mama.” Their friends at American Brewing Co. in Edmonds ran fundraisers. The Tulalip Tribes, where Teki works as a licensing certifications inspector, also offered support.
“We’re private people and it was hard at first to accept the help,” Teki Kelly said.
Mike Kelly hasn’t missed a day at Frontier Communications in Everett, where he’s worked for that past six years. There, he offers technical support to the phone company’s installation and maintenance field crew. His supervisor Janel Brough says Kelly is the most positive person she knows.
“He makes us all want to do a better job,” Brough said. “He truly sets an example and he’s not stopping.”
When the word first got out that Kelly had ALS, people at work didn’t talk much about it.
“I had to be the PR person, to help people realize it was OK to ask me about the disease,” Kelly said.
Knowing that Kelly’s medical insurance wasn’t covering all of the couple’s costs, Brough organized a series of fundraisers to help Mike and Teki pay for the expensive motorized wheelchair he uses.
“During the fundraising, I realized how much the other employees care for Mike,” Brough said. “He is loved by everyone.”
The support is humbling, Kelly said.
“I don’t know how anybody would do this without medical insurance. I am so grateful,” he said.
Kelly said he will be at work until he can’t make it. He plans to keep smiling, too.
“Am I always tough? Hell, no. You get an instruction booklet with your microwave oven, but no one can tell you how to live while you are dying. Teki and I cry, sometimes, and argue,” Mike said. “One day, I announced I’d had enough and I was leaving. It was 38 degrees and raining out and I was wearing my pajamas. Teki said she would get the door for me. Then, of course, we laughed. We are always aware that we have each other.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.