Purple Community Blog

2 Aug 2017

Susan’s Story | Remembering Dr. Edward Joseph Gralla

We received this incredible story from our friend Susan, who is participating in the MINI on the Mack (MOTM) event this Saturday, August 5. For her, and many others, this event represents so much more than a world record attempt and fun time with friends.

It is an opportunity to honor and remember loved ones that have been impacted by Parkinson’s disease and to join Van Andel Institute in our mission of finding better treatments and one day, hopefully, a cure for this devastating disease.

SUSAN’S STORY
I’m not sure if you have read the profiles of the people on this team, but if you read mine, you will see that while I have been a MINI owner and have participated in many MINI fund-raising events, I was so excited to learn that this year’s MOTM was benefiting Parkinson’s research—my Dad, Edward Gralla, was an early on-set / 26 year survivor, so the cause is very personal to me.

Grandpa Ed Emerald Isle Beach with Drew, Kirk and Evan 1989

You may also notice that I told my donors I would match whatever they donate, but I am doing so “creatively”—rather than just donate to my own account, I have donated to others. One of my Central Maryland Club members, another to someone I’ve never met (but hope to!) who was just shy of enough to earn a T-shirt to get her over the top! While I am sure most of the 1000+ people at the event will be wearing their MINI USA T-shirt as we attempt to break the Guinness World Book record, I however, will be wearing my purple shirt.

My (adult) son, Drew, will be my co-pilot on this trip and I’m stoked that he’s going to join me on this. After all, my Dad was his grandfather and Drew was the first grandchild so the cause is important to him, also.

Last, but not least, Drew’s birthday is November 11, his lucky number has always been, well, 11. When I looked at the fundraising website a little bit ago to see how far we were from our $5,000 goal (I committed to myself last week that I was going to make sure we made it) and I saw it was just $11 shy, I told Drew that was his sign—so he donated $11 and now we have officially reach our $5,000 goal!

Thanks for all that you are doing to make this possible!

Susan
MINIFIED

REMEMBERING SUSAN’S FATHER
I had written it in my mind many times over and over and over … I had to be sure not to leave out any important names. people. places. facts. dates. details.
But I could never quite commit it to paper. To do so would be to admit the inevitable.

Every time I had written it (in my mind) it always started out the same: Doctor Edward Joseph Gralla, VMD, Raleigh, NC …

And that would be address “enough.” The address part was the sticky part …

You see, my Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 47. Just prior to that, he moved my family to Raleigh as an RTP-based research toxicologist, living in his dream house. The one inside the Beltline in the nice family neighborhood, with the dogwood trees, and the fenced in yard. The one that all the years working for a pharmaceutical company, and teaching at a prestigious university, and saving, had afforded him the opportunity to own.

So it was especially hard, 15 years later, for him to realize that he was not going to live till his old age at the lovely house in Meredith Woods. With a progressive disease such as Parkinson’s, there would come a time when the reality was that he was going to need assistance with even the simplest tasks of daily life.

No one wants to envision living out the end of his or her days in a nursing home, and my father did not either, especially since he was only 62. We have all heard similar stories of older folks pleading with their family members “please don’t send me to a nursing home.” There are families that end up divided over decisions that have to be made, especially when it’s against the will of the most directly affected individual. We’ve heard the nursing home reputation: expensive, uncaring, negligent, just a place to go to wait to die.

My father’s first legacy was spelled out in his obituary: born at home, the son of a coal miner turned poor farmer (12 dairy cows to support a family of 8!) on a farm in northeastern PA. Graduated from high school with plans to work in a tire store, or maybe as a carpenter, one summer he worked construction and built bridges. A little directionless. Out of inspiring options, eventually he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served during the Korean War on the battleship USS Wisconsin and the USS Sennett submarine. After the service, my Dad took advantage of the GI bill enrolling at Rutgers University and subsequently the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his VMD degree (Side note: Imagine that! A poor farmer’s son graduating with an advanced degree from an Ivy League university. Remember how he was a personal testament to the value of an education as I finish this story).

Ed and Susan Grand Canyon

My Dad met and married my mother and over several years, my sisters and I were born. My father, the only son in a family of five sisters, now surrounded by “all females” again; no man alive was more thrilled with his blessings of three blue eyed, blond haired girls; he took great delight in predicting, with 100% accuracy, what his third child, while my mother was expecting would be.

The mark his first legacy left on the world? My Dad began his research career as a toxicologist with Pfizer—this was before the days of Al Gore and environmental consciousness—when most people did not even know what a toxicologist was, much less how to spell it.

I can remember as a child accompanying my Dad to his lab where he worked determined to prove cause and effect between thalidomide and birth defects, and the correlation between another chemical, the name of which I can not recall, and a higher incidence of cleft palate in babies, when given to pregnant mammals, than would otherwise naturally occur. He worked on cures for leukemia and once sent an afflicted dog, Sandy, home to Sandy’s family in Michigan after some modest success. The story made the local paper. Sandy the Dog with Cancer Returns Home Cured. My Dad, the hero.

My father taught toxicology at the Yale Medical School to the future of toxicologists; he served as an expert witness in cases of potential environmental contamination and took on the manufactured housing industry in the use of formaldehyde treated insulation in manufactured homes.

Perhaps his life story does not end with a Nobel Prize as he might have dreamed, but Google his name someday and see how many places his work did impact this world.

So what of my inference to a second legacy? How does a man, whose professional path is prematurely felled by an insidious disease, at the prime of his career, leave another mark on this world?

In the last 12 days of my Dad’s life, when the ending to the script had been written by the Ultimate Author, they started showing up. People. And more people. People who were affected, encouraged, supported and loved by my father. Droves of people whose lives he had impacted. Some who had started off in a similarly poor lot in life who he encouraged to pursue education as a way to a better life. They took him to heart and got there. They showed off their hard earned degrees to him first as “thanks” for his support. Others who had come to him with animal hardship stories (his degree from Penn was actually in Veterinary Medicine and he never forgot his animal training) and he would offer advice. A dying cat comforted by her owner because of the words of my Dad. A dog with a supersized litter of puppies, all of which survived because of the veterinary wisdom he shared. School children who came to read and be encouraged by my Dad, not just to offer him a light in his day (although they certainly did that!). Local students who perfected their own computer skills by teaching an old man with fingers that wanted to tap keystrokes to their own Parkinson’s beat how to survive in the 21st century.

For days they came, for days they shared. I joked and said that I did not know that out of 750 Springmoor residents and staff members, that 749 of them knew my Dad. Their stories showed us a side—a second life—a second legacy of my Dad that we never knew existed. They showed me, and I hope by telling my Dad’s story, that you can see it too, that a fulfilling, meaningful life does not have to end at the retirement home step threshold. The lives my Dad affected, in 12 years of living at a retirement community are impacted as much as the lives he touched in his career as a toxicologist.

I have written this life story, not only as a tribute to the wonderful man that my father was, but also as a tribute to the caring, loving staff and friends of Springmoor Retirement Community who replaced the fear of getting old and being alone, with friendship, love and purpose. To the angels at Springmoor, from the deepest places in our hearts, my family could never thank you enough for taking such fine fine care of a special man we loved so much.

In the end, when the obituary that I had to write was printed in the paper shortly after my father’s death, it read:

Doctor Edward Joseph Gralla, VMD, Springmoor Retirement Community, Raleigh, NC … My Dad would not have wanted it any other way.