Roger Wilhelmi's bright eyes and ready smile belie the fact that he has a serious condition known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Wilhelmi was diagnosed with the condition, also known as amyotrophic lateral schlerosis (ALS) in April 2010. ALS is named after Lou Gehrig, a baseball player in the 1930s who became afflicted with the condition at age 36. Wilhelmi said his initial symptoms were losing strength in his left arm. He contacted Grand Forks physician Matt Roller, whose father Devils Lake football coach Joe Roller had ALS. He and wife Lori then traveled to the Mayo Clinic, where he underwent two days of rigorous testing, including blood work and a spinal tap. After about a week he was told he had Lou Gehrig's disease.
"It came as a total surprise," Wilhelmi said.
He said there is no treatment of the condition, although doctors told him there was a pill, which would cost approximately $1,000 per month, that could prolong his life. He has opted not to take it. When Wilhelmi returned to Devils Lake he told his boss, Frank Mack, at Leevers, about the condition. Wilhelmi said he, and Leevers, were very supportive. Mack asked him what he wanted to do. Wilhelmi wanted to continue to work and was able to do so until April 26 of this year when he retired after 38 years of service and was given a party in his honor by Leevers.
"It was a difficult thing to do, walking out the door that day," Wilhelmi said.
ALS causes the body's muscles to atrophy and slowly limits the use of limbs. Until recently, Wilhelmi has been able to walk and "get around fairly good." He walked his daughter Amy down the aisle when she got married Nov. 11, 2011. He said he told her to "just walk slowly."
Wilhelmi said family and friends have been very supportive and that several neighbors come over to play cards with him on a regular basis. However, he admits that dealing with the condition has been hard. Among other things, he has had to give up one his favorite hobbies, raising pigeons as he is no longer physically able to do it.
His family has planned a benefit for him to help raise funds for private, in-home nursing care. Medicare had been able to provide some care to help provide follow up treatment for a blood clot Wilhelmi recently experienced, however that care will end this week. Since Wilhelmi is now confined to a wheel chair, it has been difficult to travel as the family's vehicles are currently not equipped to accommodate a wheelchair.
The benefit will be held Friday, Nov. 16, at the KC Club and will include spaghetti feed with serving beginning at 4 p.m. until gone. Tickets are $10 and advance tickets may be purchased at Wired Cellular. A silent auction will be held with bids closing at 7:30 p.m, and a live auction will begin at 8:00 p.m. Raffle tickets also are being sold for a Star Log Cabin Quilt at $1 per ticket and also for a 2000 Red Ford Mustang Convertible at $25 per ticket.
Page 2 of 2 - Wilhelmi is a lifelong resident of Devils Lake. He graduated from St. Mary's school in 1973. He worked at the Holiday Gas station before joining Leevers in 1974. He and his wife Lori have three daughters and a grandson Spencer, who is four years old.
An account for Wilhelmi has been set up at Western State Bank for donations. Ramsey County THRIVENT supports the benefit.