The Doctor And The Disease

Dr. Richard Olney, a pre-eminent University of California, San Francisco researcher of "Lou Gehrig's" disease, right, laughs with Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, M.D., Ph.D., foreground, and nurse Dallas Forshew, rear, in his office in San Francisco Jan. 31, 2005. At left is Olney's wife, Paula. AP

At a major teaching hospital and research center, death and disease are an expected part of the business. But the unexpected happened at the University of California, San Francisco, when one of the medical center's top researchers announced his own diagnosis. Correspondent John Blackstone reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

Said Dr. Richard Olney: "I still hope that maybe a cure will be found in time to help me. But I recognize that's a long shot, at this point."

Olney spent his medical career treating patients with the fatal neuromuscular disease ALS. He established a clinic for ALS and, as one of the nation's leading researchers, he hunted for the cause and a cure.

Then, months ago, he began to recognize the symptoms of ALS, in himself.

"At first, I was skeptical that it could affect me, 'cause it just seemed too ironic," says Olney.

ALS is not contagious, but it remains almost as mysterious as it was when it became known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

When the famous ballplayer gave his 1939 emotional goodbye at Yankee Stadium ("Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth"), ALS was already robbing Gehrig of control over his muscles. He died less than two years later.

Says Olney, "Prior to the past year, my favorite activities have been backpacking and hiking and mountain biking."

Not long ago, Olney was vigorous and athletic, but ALS is quickly making his muscles useless, even progressively destroying his voice. Many with ALS die within two years, few live longer than five years.

Now Olney arrives as a patient at the hospital where he used to work. He's being treated at the ALS clinic he founded. His doctor, Cathy Lomen-Hoerth was once his student. Says she, "I can hear the changes in his speech, even if it's only been a week or two since he's last been here, and that's really heartbreaking, just to hear how quickly things are changing for him."

Over the years, Olney treated hundreds of patients with the same symptoms that are now destroying his body.

Says Lomen-Hoerth, "The biggest thing that he conveyed to patients was the fact that he would be there with them through the very end."

And does she find herself giving that to him?

"I'm certainly trying to emulate what he taught me," she replies.
  • Ellen Crean

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