Wolfs Don’t Quit: Part II

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 II of III of Chapter 11. You can read Part I here. Please stay tuned for Part III to follow.

At about this time, Elise brought Shoshana in to see me. It was about 5 weeks after first being hospitalized. Before Shoshana came in, I took a glance at my body. I knew she was going to be frightened because I had lost about 40 pounds and my legs were unmovable, flaccid, and pushing against the bed. Shosh tentatively entered the hospital room. She was frightened of all of the equipment and all the tubes but quickly overcame it and was very happy to see me, and I was overwhelmed to finally being able to see her. In the Seder, there is the wise child. Shoshana, as the oldest, was that wise child; she knew, and she understood. Because she knew me for 12 years before this illness, she was shocked, but was almost immediately processing the enormity of what had happened. I could see she needed reassurance. I asked her to move from the chair and gently sit at the edge of the bed. I then asked her to look at my right foot as I moved the big toe. I told her this was a sign and was very good news and that I would dance at her Bat Mitzvah. I said it, she believed it, and that was that! Only now did I find out from Shoshana that this was the sign she needed to move forward.

I then told her the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and the fact that he did some great things despite being paralyzed, and that while I was resolute to beat this, she should know that we would all be OK regardless. Elise then entered the room and gave Shoshana M&M’s and told her to wait in the hall so she could say goodbye to me. At that point, I broke down. I didn’t know until now that Shoshana had actually heard my crying, but she was strong and was always present and cheering me on. She never felt sorry for herself, and I don’t think she was frightened about the future.

Nights were the hardest. I remember running in my dreams and was frantic when I woke up and couldn’t move anything at all. This was terrifying. I was lucky to become close friends with the night shift nurse, Barbara Legler. She would sit with me and just help me keep it all together. And after I left Stanford for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and then UCSF, and then back to Valley, she would visit me on her day off and would watch movies with me and just be there. I encourage everyone to make hospital visits; just show up, it means a lot. And she helped make it lighter for Elise and the girls. Barbara loved dogs and she knew we did. One day when I was in rehab at Stanford, she helped Elise and the girls sneak Cuddles in to see me. It made me cry to see her because it meant that maybe things could be normal again. Cuddles was old at that time, but she was able to wait for me to get home before she passed.

Elise did everything in her power to keep things normal for all of us. She hired a nanny, Marilyn, who helped with the kids for 20 hours per week and gave them have a routine schedule while Elise handled everything. My close long-term friend Morris came over some nights to play with the kids. I missed playing and rolling and running after the kids. When I was asked in rehab what one of my goals was, it was to be able to get down on the floor and play with the kids. Every Shabbat, Elise would bring a delicious dinner for us to share together in the cafeteria and we observed Shabbat; that meant everything to me.

Over the course of five months, I did rehab at Valley Medical, had optic neuritis and a relapse in March, was sent to UCSF to deal with the relapse and serious spinal pain, and then returned to Valley Medical to complete rehab. Passover in 1992 was April 18th, and I was extremely excited about getting a pass to attend our Seders. Elise’s parents were there as were the Sweazey’s and Barb. I was in a wheelchair, but I was present, and those Seders represented my own freedom. To be able to go home even just for the evening, and to know that even though you were in a wheelchair, things were going to be OK was all the impetus I needed to transition over the year from a wheelchair to braces, to no braces, to what was my new normal.

Elise’s father, a pediatrician, came out and was visibly in pain seeing me so sick and with such an uncertain future, but he still reassured me that the body takes a long time to heal and to stay optimistic. In fact, I remember Russ coming in to see me after I was out of danger and said the same, which was that what happened to me happened in a period of hours and that he was optimistic, regardless of the uncertainty, that I would recover over a year up to 80%. I repeated that to myself through the one year of hell, over and over again.

Steve came out a couple of times just to sit with me and get me to laugh and remind me to be strong. And I could see how much it hurt him to see me in my position. It was very hard on my father because he couldn’t come out to see me; my mother had a massive stroke just a couple of years prior to my illness, and he couldn’t leave her alone. And my sister Roberta never figured out a way to see me at all.

This ordeal was hard for me, almost unimaginable, but it was also hard for Elise and the kids. When looking back I see clearly that each of the girls responded in their own way to the trauma. For Shoshana, it was getting reassurance from me and believing in me. She never wavered. I told her that I was going to dance at her Bat Mitzvah, and she believed me. Yael was the quiet one. About five weeks into my illness, Elise brought her into the hospital to see me. They used a gurney to move me from the bed to a big white chair. Yael entered the room, and over a decade after the illness, in her own words spoke about the impact all of this had on her in her own college essay entitled “My Hero”. It captures what was happening to her:

“When I was in first grade, I woke up and my father was no longer my hero. How could he be? He didn’t even have the ability to walk, let alone fly or stop time like other superheroes. My dad returned to being an infant. He learned to crawl, feed himself, and sign his name on legal documents with an “X.” Eventually, I learned that superheroes do not always save the world; they sometimes just recover from a terminal illness without a tear shed. And in learning this, I became stronger.

He sat in a big white chair the first time I saw him after he had become a quadriplegic. He could not open his own mail, let alone hug his six-year-old daughter. I eased myself onto my father’s lap, my heart beating fast in fear of this new image of my hero. I became the adult; I opened my father’s bills with his knife he always used to open his letters. My hero was now incapable of being the person I looked up to, or so I thought.

Have you ever been afraid to sit on your daddy’s lap? I was. I was afraid of this new person who sat before me. This new man had the abilities of a baby. I had more capabilities than my father. These thoughts ran through my head like a freight train on the tracks. As I sat there, on my father’s lap, I looked around and saw IVs coming from his hands and arms and an oxygen tube connected to his nose. Besides wearing the hospital outfit, he also wore a smile. I realized that on my father’s lap was where I was supposed to be. He was still the dad he always was. He was still the same hero. My dad, in a wheelchair, wore a smile, not a frown. He kept his hopes high, and at that moment when I tore open his letters, I realized my father was still the person I looked up to.

I held my mom’s hand, not wanting to let go in fear of having to sit on the big white chair with my dad. I could still walk, why couldn’t he? Looking at the mail on the hospital table, I said under my breath, “Mommy, I’m scared of Daddy. Let’s come back when he’s all better.” Not knowing what to do, my mother shed a tear and pushed me closer to the man in the chair. The man smiled and took my hand. The spark in our palms put a smile on my little face, and I then accepted this new person for his strength.

I awoke one morning not knowing what had happened. I felt that the man I called a hero could no longer fulfill the position due to the lack of strength in his spinal cord. Through my dad’s illness and recovery, I learned that heroes come in all different shapes and sizes. I learned that courage and determination make you a hero, not the ability to drive a fast car or chase away scary monsters under your daughter’s bed.

You are supposed to take what you have learned in the past and thread it into your present and your future. I have learned many things about life and about who I am through my family’s life-changing experience. I will never forget the years of recovery and excitement when my dad saw his big toe move for the first time in months, when I saw him crawl for the first time in the physical therapy ward, and when he learned to walk again with his leg braces and crutches out in the hospital garden. The memories of building and un-building my father’s wheelchair every time we got in and out of my mom’s red 1989 Oldsmobile will travel with me throughout my life. I’ll never forget those things, and I hope I never do. I take what I have experienced throughout my life and change the bad into the good by learning through my own history.”

That is a lot to take in for a child not yet 7 years old. And the fact that a decade later Yael can so vividly articulate her feelings and what she learned is a testament to Elise’s strength in supporting her to have those feelings and to feel safe with them and know she had her support. Each child had a different reaction but all of them somehow learned important lessons from Elise and me in perseverance and hope. Shoshana just needed reassurance and got it from both of us. Yael needed to process what it meant and why something terrible could also be self-healing, and Tali, at not yet 4 years old, processed it differently.