There was no predicting the disease that befell Gene Kendrick last fall.
The 67-year-old Colonie man was in great health — enough so that his physician playfully said he’d have trouble distinguishing Kendrick from a young man were he not standing in his office. Retired two years from his longtime job as a cameraman for WNYT Channel 13 News, Kendrick was doing some home improvements when he first noticed a weakness in his left arm.
At first, he figured the issue was a torn rotator cuff, which is a common cause of pain and disability among adults. But tests gradually revealed Kendrick was afflicted with something far more serious: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
More commonly known as ALS or Lou Gerhig’s disease, it’s a lethal degenerative neuromuscular disorder that affects motor nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Though first discovered in 1869, there is still no known cause and no known cure, leaving those diagnosed with the disease to face a grim future.
“The diagnosis came out of left field,” Kendrick said Sunday at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival off upper Union Street.
Kendrick served two years with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and survived some of the darkest years of the conflict. Now he’s facing a new battle against a mysterious enemy with hardly any weapon to defend himself.
He’s not fighting the disease alone, though. More than 160 friends, family members and supporters joined Kendrick at the Congregation Gates of Heaven on Sunday to help raise money to combat ALS.
Dubbed “Gene’s Army” and wearing red shirts, the group raised more than $8,000 during a 5K race that stepped off from the synagogue midmorning. The event featured 500 runners and 300 walkers, which are expected to bring in well over $10,000 to support St. Peter’s Hospital’s Lewis Golub MDA ALS Clinic in Albany.
“[The amount raised has] almost doubled every year,” said Melissa Morrison, a fundraising specialist with the center. “This is awesome.”
The race was established following the October 2009 death from ALS of Golub, a member of the synagogue and part of the family that founded Price Chopper supermarkets. Golub’s family later pledged $250,000 to St. Peter’s, which renamed the center in his honor.
The race coincides with the synagogue’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival and now has become a focal point of the event. With Sunday’s cool and at times wet weather, the run was the main attraction of the Festival. Rabbi Matthew Cutler said Golub’s death coupled with the emergence of other ALS cases in the congregation has helped galvanize support for the event.
“We’re trying to raise awareness and raise funds,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more cases of it in our community and our congregation.”
Among those cases was Marilyn Nemzer of Niskayuna, who died in September after a three-year battle with the disease. Her daughter, Lisa Weber, recalled how, little by little, the disease eroded her mother’s ability to function.
“There needs to be a cure,” said Weber, who helped organize the 5K walk. “We’ve known about this disease for a long time and they still don’t know what causes it. They still don’t know how to treat it.”
Mike Britt of Schodack thought the general weakness he felt in his right hand was the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome. After a battery of tests came up negative, his physicians finally determined he was suffering from ALS last June.
A worker with the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Britt was forced into retirement by the disease. Now he’s trying to draw attention to the gut-wrenching diagnosis roughly 30,000 people receive annually.
Britt’s now participating in both clinical and research trials in the hope of advancing treatment methods for the disease. Next month, he intends to lobby federal legislators in Washington in an effort to garner more funding for research.
“We’ve got to make our voice known.”