March 4, 2010

Fighting to stay in the game FightIn the game, despite ALS

JENN MENENDEZ

— By

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Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Greely High School volleyball coach Bruce Churchill works with sophmore Emily Sampson after a home game. Photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.

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Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Greely High School volleyball coach Bruce Churchill signals to one of his players during a home game. Photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.

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Staff Writer

CUMBERLAND — From his place on the Greely High School volleyball team's bench, Bruce Churchill is in constant motion.

His hands move wildly as he calls instructions and plays, or points to a spot on the court where he wants a shift.

Churchill, an assistant coach, is the X's-and-O's guy for the six-time defending state champions. He calls the plays. Looks for holes. Adjusts. He is the set of eyes that six girls turn to in mid-match when they need guidance, help, approval. The man they surround in a huddle during a timeout.

In those moments, Churchill's wheelchair fades into the background, as do the pain and exhaustion behind his smile.

Churchill, a 55-year-old obstetrician, husband and father of three, is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative and fatal disease that's as random as it is cruel.

His solace is doing as much as he still can.

''It's hard. I originally thought I wouldn't even be working now,'' said Churchill, who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago. ''I said to the team, 'If I can be effective or helpful sitting, I'll do that. For as long as I can.'''

Head coach Kelvin Hasch remembers Churchill walking into the gym at Greely eight years ago to ask: ''Need any help?''

He sure did.

Hasch, who is a teacher at Greely, had been lobbying the athletic administration with some students to form a team. When the first season began, he and Churchill fell into a rhythm.

''He and I are a really good team,'' Hasch said. ''Lots of times, he knows exactly what I'm thinking and I know exactly what he's thinking. We just work.''

Churchill handles the game plan. Hasch determines who will play where, and when to make substitutions.

BECOMING THE TEAM TO BEAT

Those early days were a learning experience.

Hasch had a background in volleyball from high school in California. Churchill's background came from playing in competitive recreational leagues in Michigan when he was in medical school.

They learned as the team learned, and after one year as a club team, Greely became the standard in Maine high school volleyball.

Since 2001, the team has won six state championships. There were four undefeated seasons from 2003 to 2006, a one-loss season in 2007 and an undefeated season last year. This year, the team has won 13 of 14 games, suffering its only loss to rival Falmouth High.

Right before the 2007 season, the team was called together.

''I told them what would happen,'' Churchill said. ''I didn't know how fast I would start to get sick or what I would be able to do physically.''

It had been common for Churchill to get on the court during drills, demonstrate sets or serves and be physically involved in his coaching.

The girls, who call him ''Church,'' didn't know if that would change. They didn't know what would change.

''I remember a lot of team crying sessions,'' said Michaela Campbell, a senior who plays outside hitter. ''I knew the general outline of how it goes. Muscle loss. And that it is fatal.''

DISEASE PLAYS OUT IN SLOW MOTION

As his disease progressed, Churchill considered stepping aside.

''The year we lost a game (2007), it seemed like we talked about (the disease) constantly,'' said Churchill. ''I said, 'If this is more of a distraction '''

He trailed off momentarily and wiped his eyes as he recalled his team's response: ''Everyone said, 'No. We want you here.'

''It's been a little bit of a slow-motion thing,'' he said. ''They have had a chance to see me develop it slowly, which I actually think has been better.''

He began this season using two canes. Within a few weeks, the canes were replaced by the wheelchair. The team adjusted.

''I've been able to do less, but it's been pretty seamless,'' Churchill said. ''I'll call their name, motion for them to come over if I want them to change something. They don't seem too upset.''

But when the girls let it sink in, it can be painful.

''It's hard seeing him slowly get less mobile,'' said sophomore Emily Sampson.

But just having him there, she said, is a comfort.

''We see him a lot. That takes a little of the edge off,'' Campbell said. ''It's almost hard to remember what it was like before.''

PATIENTS STAND BY STRICKEN DOCTOR

Churchill was diagnosed with ALS in July 2007. He had had symptoms since the previous autumn. He had no weakness, but he felt twitches in his legs and significant cramping.

In the fall of 2007 he joined an intravenous study. A catheter was placed into the upper right corner of his chest.

Now, twice a day, he pumps ceftriaxone, a strong antibiotic, through his body. He said the medicine has been shown to slow the progress of the disease in mice.

He still sees his patients at Coastal Women's Health in Scarborough. He stopped delivering babies late last year and did his final surgery in June. His balance had deteriorated too much.

''That first year, I told my patients, was difficult,'' Churchill said. ''All my visits turned into 15 minutes of crying before I could do the physical. I told my patients I may be here next year. I just don't know.''

None of his patients has requested another doctor. All of them understand what ALS can do, as it attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing muscle weakness and atrophy.

The disease is rare, striking just two of every 100,000 people. The ALS Association estimates that 30,000 Americans have it.

FUTURE IS 'JUST AN UNKNOWN'

Getting to and from daily activities is extremely tiring for Churchill. But it matters that he is still so involved, said his wife, Cindy Churchill.

''It gets discouraging when things that were easy become so hard,'' she said. ''After getting used to the idea that he did have this terrible illness, I think, he realized the best thing to keep his spirits up was to keep doing the things he loves.''

So he works. He plays the trumpet in a band. He coaches volleyball. He serves on the board of the ALS Maine collaborative.

Churchill has coached all three of his daughters at Greely. His youngest daughter, Leah, a senior at Greely, is a member of the volleyball team and, her teammates say, a beautiful singer and musician.

Cristina, 24, is in medical school. Tessa, 20, is majoring in neuroscience at Brown University.

''He always puts on a positive face for the girls,'' Cindy Churchill said. ''I just keep hoping he'll be around for quite a while longer. It's just an unknown. But at least you can appreciate the time you have together.''

Hasch and Churchill are busy preparing their team for the state playoffs, which begin this week. Falmouth is the No. 1 seed in Class A; Greely is No. 2. The Rangers will start Saturday.

Hasch said he expects Churchill will return next season if he is able.

''He's alluded a couple of times this might be his last season,'' Hasch said.

''I joke back, 'Oh no, it isn't.' Then, other times, he'll say, 'Next year we've got to do this.' We count the blessings for the amount of time he's here with us.''

For now, there's another state championship to chase.

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

jmenendez@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Greely High School volleyball coach Bruce Churchill talk to his players during a home game. Photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.

ALL

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Greely High School volleyball coach Bruce Churchill signals to one of his players during a home game. Photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.

ALL

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Derek Davis: Greely High School volleyball coach Bruce Churchill signals to one of his players during a home game. Photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.

ALL



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