Rare Disease Forces Popular Teacher to Retire

PHOTO Steve Birdsall suffers from a rare disease called Multiple Systems Atrophy.

Steve Birdsall, 51, is the type of teacher both parents and kids want -- strict, but fun and caring enough to write his students letters after they've moved on to middle school.

But when a rare disease derailed his teaching career and forced him to retire from his job at Maple Hills Elementary School in Issaquah, Wash., the town, faced with losing one of its everyday heroes, rallied to support Birdsall.

Thatdisease, Multiple Systems Atrophy, developed rapidly.

VIDEO: Steve Birdsall retires from teaching after receiving a diagnosis of MSA.
Rare Disease Sidelines a Teacher

"To explain how fast it has progressed, he was jogging in September," said Polly Birdsall, Steve Birdsall's wife and a P.E. teacher at Maple Hills. "Now he uses a cane... he shuffles. He looks like he has Parkinson's disease."

Birdsall was actually first diagnosed with Parkinson's disease three years ago, until his symptoms got worse and another test revealed he had Multiple System Atrophy -- 20 times as rare as Parkinson's disease and more difficult to treat.

Birdsall's misdiagnoses came after he noticed he was uncharacteristically falling in rivers during a fly-fishing trip to Alaska. Birdsall, who friends describe him as "quiet, but strong" kept on teaching. But his symptoms worsened and the family sought a second opinion.

Polly Birdsall said her husband wanted to work at least five more years, but by January he realized he might not make it another year.

"His speech is very slurred. His reaction time [has slowed]. His cognitive ability is still OK," said Birdsall. "I could see maybe older kids, but fifth grade you need to be on top of it."

Now Birdsall's hometown is saying thanks, and trying to show the same support he showed their children for the last two decades. More than 200 people are scheduled to come to a fundraiser Saturday to support the Birdsalls. The money from an auction and raffle will go to whatever the family needs.

Managing Multiple System Atrophy Will Be Huge Challenge

"He's an excellent teacher. There are always people that you know who are meant to be teachers and he's one of them. He has that passion for it," said Patti Flanik, the principal's secretary at Maple Hills Elementary.

Flanik knows Birdsall as a colleague, and as a fellow parent. Her children grew up together with the Birdsalls two kids, now age 14 and 16.

"This is definitely a man who has changed this world. I've had parents tell me that -- that he's changed their kids," said Flanik. 'I think really people just want the family to know that they're there for him."

According to neurologists, the family might need a lot of help.

"The average lifespan from diagnosis to death is nine years," said Dr. Thomas Davis, head of movement disorders at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

"Probably, 5 or 6 years into it most people are really disabled by it and most people could not work after a few years."

Unlike Parkinson's disease or other movement disorders, Multiple System Atrophy may strike in three different ways.

"That's' the part that's not predictable," said Dr. Howard S. Kirshner, professor and vice chairman of neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The disease could strike the cerebellar system, changing a person's gait, making them feel dizzy or leading to coordination problems with individual limbs.

Or the disease could strike the same part of the brain as Parkinson's disease, which causes "Rigidity, people walk with tiny steps. They're handwriting gets small and their voice gets soft," Kirshner explained.

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