Rare Disease Forces Popular Teacher to Retire

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

ByABC News
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.