(See accompanying ALS feature)
LET'S NOT KID ourselves: 2020 was a year of loss for many. The profoundness and intensity of missed opportunities, the absence of loved ones, and the lack of normalcy was different for each individual. In my life, the loss was devastating. It was not just a year of disruption or inconvenience but the year I had to say goodbye, forever. October 15, 2020, is the day my mom took her last breath surrounded by loved ones in a world going crazy, feeling too young and capable to believe it was happening.
For those unfamiliar with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), it is an unyielding and cruel disease. It attacks all muscle function slowly over time, or not-so-slowly as the average life expectancy is only three to five years from onset of the first sign or symptom. Keep in mind, the first sign is usually a trip or fall, something insignificant and easily overlooked by circumstance.
Most are unaware of their fate until a year or years after the first symptom occurs. In other words, ALS is diagnosed by process of elimination. When it can’t be anything else and your body—not your mind—continues to fail, it is ALS. The similarities between my mom and what we as a culture endured in 2020 are staggering. We, as a population, had to sit quietly and watch as our world changed with little to no control.
The things once taken for granted like grocery shopping or hugging a friend now seemed strange and distant. And many, myself included, felt increasingly lonely and separated from those around me. Trapped within her own body, unable to speak or walk, I assume my mom felt the same way.
As a dentist and people-person by nature, I was naive to how often I touched my patients on the shoulder or held tight to a frightened hand—until I couldn’t. The amount of missed hugs and high-fives after completing an involved treatment plan or removing braces from an excited teen was evident every day.
And I most certainly overlooked the power of smiling faces as they walked through the door of my practice. I, for one, hope to never take smiles, handshakes and hugs for granted again. As I reflect on my personal experiences with the pandemic, my role as a healthcare provider, and my mom’s illness, the magnitude of her suffering exponentially outweighs anything I (or likely you) had to endure.
So, it is fitting that the guidance of what to do next, of how to live in 2021, of what to gain from the COVID-19 world come from her. Think of your attitude, your resolutions and your plans. Then think of my mom, Jacque. She was an amazing teacher, mother, sister, friend and wife. She was selfless and self-sufficient at the same time. She never complained and she never asked, “Why?”
She chose to focus on living and pushed outside her limitations like a Blackshirt linebacker. She was the definition of resilience and unbelievably kind until her last day. And, I believe with all my heart that this unbreakable spirit gave us more time together.
As a dentist and business owner, the impact of the pandemic is felt by my team and my patients. Moving forward, my goal is to rebuild trust among both as well as to continue teaching others the value of health-centered choices for improved futures and wellbeing.
As a daughter and mother, I strive to find gratitude within uncertainty, living life to its fullest just like my mom. I hope by sharing Jacque’s journey you gain some insight and intention that strength is within all of us. I hope you can draw on your own personal experiences and that you find gratitude and hidden blessings within the rubble that was 2020.
Dr. Stephanie Vondrak is board certified by the American Academy of Craniofacial Dental Sleep Medicine to treat patients suffering from sleep apnea with sleep apnea appliances.