By Dennis P Wolf, Member of the Board of Directors of SRNA
Dennis P Wolf is an accomplished financial executive who has been the Chief Financial Officer of several public technology companies including Centigram Communications, Credence Systems, DataStax, Fusion-io Multi-systems, Hercules Technology Growth Capital, MySQL, AB, Omnicell and Redback Networks. Dennis took some of these companies public along with helping lead the acquisitions of some of these companies. Dennis has also served on eight boards as the Chairman of the Audit Committee and currently serves on the board of Codexis. Earlier in his career, he worked in senior financial roles at Apple, IBM and Sun Microsystems. Dennis holds a B.A. from the University of Colorado and an M.B.A. from the University of Denver.
An important aspect of Dennis’ life is that he is a survivor of 2 attacks of TM, with the first illness happening in 1992 while at the prime of his career. He was later diagnosed with NMOSD.
Dennis wrote a memoir, Wolfs Don’t Quit. The following is Part I of III of Chapter 11. Please stay tuned for Parts II and III to follow.
Chapter 11: “Wolfs Don’t Quit!”
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–-which you can never afford to lose–-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
This is the chapter I didn’t want to write about because once you open up you don’t know where it is going to go. Up until now I have never written extensively about it. It was always so much easier to explain the diagnosis, tell anyone who asked that I was in the hospital for six months, in a wheelchair for several more months, then full leg braces, then one brace and then none. And now look at me! And with Elise’s (my wife’s) determination and encouragement, hiding it so well that people would look at me in amazement.
But this means absolutely nothing. It wasn’t two braces followed by one brace then followed by none. It was a war, and it took prisoners; Elise, Tali who was 3.5, Yael 6.5, and Shoshana 12. We all fought a war, and I as the commander could not fail; I had no choice. But it was really Elise who kept it all together and drew up the plans on how to fight the attacker. It was Elise who kept the kids steady and provided them a normal life, even with a husband who, as the doctors told her, may not survive, and if he did, he may not walk again, or he could even be in a nursing home. Elie Weisel said, “whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty”. So, I am telling you the story.
Before I continue, what you are going to read shows someone with courage that pushed through and became a better version of himself, and a very successful, well known, and respected executive in the Bay Area. I did all of that, but it wasn’t me because there were times I just wanted to quit, physically and professionally. Can you imagine what it is like to suddenly have 3 children and no husband at home with the prospect of your husband never returning? Can you imagine looking at a very sick, very quadriplegic husband in the eye and saying everything is going to be fine? And to do this every day while being as cheerful and as normal as possible for the girls so as to provide them a shelter of peace? And to go back the next day and do it over and over and over again for 6 months? And then to endure the aftermath illnesses over the next three decades? This story is about Elise as much as it is about me.
Late December 1991. We returned from a family trip to Baltimore. Prior to Baltimore, I had been in Japan negotiating for Apple at Fuji. When we came home, I had a stomach flu. A few days later, we were hosting a dinner at our house for our Chavura group when I suddenly became violently ill. I had this overwhelming dysesthesia across my chest. It was intolerable, so Elise and I ran to O’Connor Hospital Emergency Room (ER). The doctors checked me out and told us that I must have a virus and just go home and rest. I went upstairs while Elise did her best to entertain our guests. I tried to sleep, but I was overwhelmed with pain, and so off we went for a second time to O’Connor. This time they did a chest x-ray which was clear, and they told us to go home and try to rest because there is nothing wrong with me. When we got home, I tried to use the bathroom but could not go. The pain in my bladder was severe. By this time, our friend in the Chavura, who was a doctor, was getting worried and told Elise that I had a serious problem, must be admitted, and he would call the hospital. Prior to our arrival, our doctor friend already called the ER, and when the ER doctor saw me, he put in a foley catheter, admitted me to the ICU, and I never went on my own again.
The only thing I know about that first night is that I couldn’t stop throwing up, and I began to lose the ability to move my legs freely in the bed. The next several days became a fog because I thought I had been in the ICU for 1 day, but Elise advised me it was five days. I remember the next day, which might in actuality have been day five, the neurologist raised my right leg and it freely fell to the bed. He then raised my left leg and it fell to the bed as well. And then he tried to open up my fisted hands and they wouldn’t open. I was a quadriplegic.
As kids we all have read a story about the kid who was in a car accident and ended up in a wheelchair. In our naivete, we said we would never live that way; we would just kill ourselves. That’s until never happens to you. So there I was, paralysis overtaking my body and no diagnosis. Elise decided quickly that I had to get out of O’Connor, and they rushed me to Stanford. I looked up from my bed at Stanford and wondered why someone was slapping my face gently to rouse me. I saw Dr. Russ Altman, the Chief Resident, peering down close to me and looking directly in my eyes and saying, very loudly because I was in and out of consciousness, “Mr. Wolf, you are at Stanford and we are here to find out what is wrong with you. Try to relax and we will make you comfortable.” As I look back, I think there were several doctors surrounding my bed. I became a fascinating case. No one wants to be a fascinating case. However, I had the great luck of having Russ Altman as the Attending Physician, and he choreographed a truly remarkable recovery. In Transverse Myelitis, some recover with only minimal to no long-term complications, some recover with significant to serious deficits, and some don’t recover from any deficits. I recovered with significant deficits, but through the first several months, it appeared that I would not recover at all.
Dr. Altman wouldn’t accept the condition I was in and started me on high doses of steroids and came to the conclusion right then that I had transverse myelitis (TM), an ultra-rare disorder. It would only later be determined, after relapses over the years, that I in fact always had neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD), a progressive and severe autoimmune disease. Elise and I came up with another idea, and this one saved my mobility and probably my life. We insisted that they start plasmapheresis, also known as plasma exchange. Plasma exchange at the time was not used for TM, but Russ worked with us. The two of us knew about it because they used it for septicemia. My brother, Steve, had sepsis several years prior, and plasmapheresis saved his life. We always kept that in mind.
I was in unendurable pain, and the doctors tried to manage it while also aggressively treating my illness. TM is a condition where your autoimmune system overreacts to something that it is attacking, but instead of attacking the invader, it actually attacks the myelin sheath of your spinal cord. The actual inflammation that ensues damages the myelin sheath, and messages from the brain to the spinal cord, and then to the peripheral nerves, are interrupted, causing paralysis and nerve death. The only way to treat this is aggressively, and so Dr. Altman began plasma exchange. I had a total of 13 exchanges. In both of the future relapses I had we used plasmapheresis as well, and now it is a common therapy for demyelination.
Before Dr. Altman could stop the invasion, inflammation was way up the cervical cord on the way to the brain, stopping at C4. I remember the day that things looked ominous. One of the doctors came in who was not really as familiar with my case as Russ and told Elise, while I was laying there as a third person invisible, that she should “prepare” the children because I might not make it through the night. Imagine telling a mother that. When I heard him say that, a couple of things went through my mind. One was that he didn’t know what he was talking about, but the other was that I was almost content this was the case because I didn’t want to live this way anyway. I could not move anything below my neck, my legs were paralyzed, I was not able to open my hands, the pain was relentless. I also had a wife I loved and children who needed me, so that feeling was only fleeting because, as Steve would frequently remind me through all of this and the next ones that followed, “Wolfs don’t quit.”
Elise’s mother had come out and stayed 6 weeks through the darkest first period and then came another couple of times. She supported Elise through that terrible night, and both were given support by our friend and Rabbi Alan Berkowitz. So, Elise did what she does best, she took fate as it was given to her and made the best of it. She got strength from her mother and help from Alan. Savta was there almost every day for all of those weeks and got Elise through the darkest days with her confidence and provided a safe harbor for the kids. I remember her holding my hand and telling me I would be ok. She clasped her hand wearing rings that I still remember and asked me to stay strong.
By the next day, the inflammation was receding, and I was no longer in a life-or-death situation. Elise came in, with tears in her eyes, and told me that I was going to make it, but the doctors told her I might end up in a nursing home. It was January 1992. Shoshana’s Bat Mitzvah was scheduled for December, and I told Elise that I would dance at Shoshana’s Bat Mitzvah. And because I said it, Elise just believed it, and she and I had our goal. At the time I was defiant, but things did not look good at all, and I certainly didn’t believe it.
Because they didn’t know for sure what was wrong with me, I was in isolation for the first few weeks, so Elise had to come in wearing masks and PPE, Personal Protective Equipment (because we are now going through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all familiar with all of this). After a few weeks had passed, and I had completed plasmapheresis treatment, they allowed Shoshana to visit me.
A few weeks after I was taken out of isolation, my right big toe moved! Any movement at all after several weeks would be a good sign, but the toe gets innervation from the longest nerve in the body and this was really good news. Our friend Ruth is a physical therapist and visited often and reminded me of this constantly. It was followed up by that same movement in my left big toe. And then movement started up my leg and to my arms. While my right hand opened up from a grasping position, my left hand would remain partially paralyzed.