My Experience with ALS
I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many.
It was a great shock to me to discover that I had motor neurone disease. I had never been very well co-ordinated physically as a child. I was not good at ball games, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. Maybe for this reason, I didn't care much for sport or physical activities. But things seemed to change when I went to Oxford, at the age of 17. I took up coxing and rowing. I was not Boat Race standard, but I got by at the level of inter-College competition.
In my third year at Oxford, however, I noticed that I seemed to be getting more clumsy, and I fell over once or twice for no apparent reason. But it was not until I was at Cambridge, in the following year, that my father noticed, and took me to the family doctor. He referred me to a specialist, and shortly after my 21st birthday, I went into hospital for tests. I was in for two weeks, during which I had a wide variety of tests. They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and injected some radio opaque fluid into my spine, and watched it going up and down with x-rays, as they tilted the bed. After all that, they didn't tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis, and that I was an a-typical case. I gathered, however, that they expected it to continue to get worse, and that there was nothing they could do, except give me vitamins. I could see that they didn't expect them to have much effect. I didn't feel like asking for more details, because they were obviously bad.
The realisation that I had an incurable disease, that was likely to kill me in a few years, was a bit of a shock. How could something like that happen to me? Why should I be cut off like this? However, while I had been in hospital, I had seen a boy I vaguely knew die of leukaemia, in the bed opposite me. It had not been a pretty sight. Clearly there were people who were worse off than me. At least my condition didn't make me feel sick. Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself I remember that boy.
Not knowing what was going to happen to me, or how rapidly the disease would progress, I was at a loose end. The doctors told me to go back to Cambridge and carry on with the research I had just started in general relativity and cosmology. But I was not making much progress, because I didn't have much mathematical background. And, anyway, I might not live long enough to finish my PhD. I felt somewhat of a tragic character. I took to listening to Wagner, but reports in magazine articles that I drank heavily are an exaggeration. The trouble is once one article said it, other articles copied it, because it made a good story. People believe that anything that has appeared in print so many times must be true.
My dreams at that time were rather disturbed. Before my condition had been diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing. But shortly after I came out of hospital, I dreamt that I was going to be executed. I suddenly realised that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I were reprieved. Another dream, that I had several times, was that I would sacrifice my life to save others. After all, if I were going to die anyway, it might as well do some good. But I didn't die. In fact, although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research, and I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met just about the time my condition was diagnosed. That engagement changed my life. It gave me something to live for. But it also meant that I had to get a job if we were to get married. I therefore applied for a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) college, Cambridge. To my great surprise, I got a fellowship, and we got married a few months later.
The fellowship at Caius took care of my immediate employment problem. I was lucky to have chosen to work in theoretical physics, because that was one of the few areas in which my condition would not be a serious handicap. And I was fortunate that my scientific reputation increased, at the same time that my disability got worse. This meant that people were prepared to offer me a sequence of positions in which I only had to do research, without having to lecture.