Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Defying the Diagnosis

Stephen Hawking was just twenty-one years old in 1962 when he received the awful news that would change his life—he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.It's a devastating diagnosis: the disease is progressive, incurable and fatal. His doctors told him he had just a few years to live.

At the time, Hawking was a doctoral student at Cambridge, having already earned a degree from Oxford. But his research hadn't been going well; he was unmotivated in his work and bored with his life. His diagnosis was a turning point: he could either give up his studies and wait to die, or he could make the most of what time he had left. At first, he chose the road of despair and resignation. He wanted to give up because he didn't see any point in finishing his degree if he was going to die soon.

But he didn't give up for long. Through the encouragement and love of his girlfriend, Jane, he pulled out of his despair and found the fire and determination that had been missing before his diagnosis. He married Jane in 1965, finished his studies, and got a job at a university. True, he was afraid of dying, but even more, he was afraid that he would die without achieving anything in his life.

Hawking and Jane had three children together, and she devotedly cared for him year after year as his disease progressed. While his body was deteriorating, his career was blossoming. He was elected as one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society in 1974, became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1982, and became a Companion of Honor in 1989. These acknowledgements and public honors were bestowed on Hawking for his contri- butions to the fields of theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. He has published hundreds of research papers, as well as six books. His runaway bestseller was A Brief History of Time, which stayed on the Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks -- unheard of for a science book.

It's been over forty years since Hawking got his diagnosis from the doctors. He defied their prediction of an early death, as well as his early impulse to give up. Now completely paralyzed, wheelchair-bound and compelled to use a computer voice synthesizer, he is a respected scientist, a world-renowned celebrity and an inspiration to millions.

In a 2005 interview, Hawking said, "It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life and I haven't done badly. People won't have time for you if you are always angry or complaining." That's not a bad credo to live by. Excerpted from The Best Way Out Is Always Through, by B. J. Gallagher