When Steve Wells was a 21-year-old Physical Education student at Queen's University, his body started to rebel against him. His once-perfect football spiral faltered.
Doctors gave him a devastating diagnosis: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or, as it is often called, Lou Gehrig's disease. There was no cure.
Instead of surrendering to the disease, Wells played touch football. He finished his degree. He lived independently. He worked a variety of jobs.
Thirty-one years later, Wells has become Canada's longest-living survivor of the fatal neuromuscular disease.
His odds-defying longevity and determined spirit give hope to other ALS sufferers.
No longer able to speak, Wells communicates via computer using "Eyemax" technology, which utilizes eye movement to select letters and symbols.
"I have a terminal illness…so what!" he typed to Queen's Alumni Review. "I accepted the diagnosis immediately and I've continued to live life to the fullest, taking ALS along for the ride."
Wells dedicates much of his time to ALS campaigning and mentoring, while working full-time trading stock and index options. His life reflects his belief that an ALS diagnosis is not a death sentence.
Statistics were not — and still aren't — on Wells' side. Eighty per cent of ALS sufferers die within two to five years of their diagnosis. Only 5 per cent survive more than 20 years.
For Wells, the hands were the first to go. Then his right foot. Soon his right side "fell apart." His speech slurred.
By the age of 39, he could no longer speak.
The slow process of degeneration will never end. ALS attacks nerve cells, shutting down the body one part at a time.
Wells moved into Toronto East General Hospital in 2003. A difficult adjustment at first, the once-independent 51 year old now finds simple pleasures in his daily life — his intravenous diet includes caffeine in the morning and beer after work. He shares a joke or two with his love, a nurse named Alsie Jones.
"I don't consider myself sick, although my sense of humour is sometimes referred to as such," Mr. Wells typed in an interview with the National Post. "Rather, I'm just navigating around different potholes in the road of life."
Doctors and nurses at the hospital have no explanation for the Wells' optimism and record-breaking longevity.
Wells explains his attitude: "Lou Gehrig said: 'I may have been given a bad break in life, but I consider myself the luckiest man alive.' That embodies my core belief. Life is what you make of it."
(Photo credit: AP via CP/Murray Becker, File)