Rare Disease Forces Popular Teacher to Retire

A community rallied behind grade school teacher facing a debilitating disease.

April 20, 2010, 6:58 PM

April 21, 2010— -- 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.

"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.

On top of that, Multiple System Atrophy will also degrade the body's autonomic dysfunction or in other words -- you lose the automatic body's functions that you can't control voluntarily.

People with Multiple System Atrophy might have bladder troubles, or they faint when they stand up to quickly because the body cannot control their blood pressure. A person may overheat because their body loses the ability to sweat, or they may have breathing and swallowing trouble.

Family Overwhelmed by Community's Support

"They don't breathe well at night. Before we knew this these patients were dying in their sleep. So some patients will require a tracheostomy," said Dr. Paola Sandroni, of the American Academy of Neurology and a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Some people will also have problems at night while dreaming because they lose the muscle paralysis that normally occurs during REM sleep.

"They basically kick and scream and they act out their dreams, while normally when we dream we are paralyzed except for the muscles controlling breathing and of course the heart."

Sandroni said the disease is typically not genetic. But once diagnosed with the disease, doctors say they can only ease someone's discomfort.

"There is no specific cure. We cannot cure it, we cannot slow it down," said Sandroni. "There are a couple of clinical trials that are just starting -- we hope it will work. Otherwise it's only supportive care."

At the moment, Polly Birdsall said she's just planning for her daughter's transition to college, and to remodel the house to help her husband get around. She said she never expected the community to try and raise any money.

"It's been unbelievable. We were very shocked," said Birdsall. We were thinking it would be more of a goodbye party for Steve to say goodbye to friends and colleagues and it's turned into something bigger."

To find out more about Multiple System Atrophy, visit the Shy-Drager Syndrome (SDS) / Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) Support Group.

To learn more about the fundraiser for Steve Birdsall, visit the Birdsall Family Trust Web site

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