The walls in Deana Davis’ office are filled with photographs — the colourful landscape of the Cape Breton Highlands, the hustle and bustle of urban Halifax, the beauty of a rose. Each was taken by Deana’s late husband Darrell.
Darrell Cottam was 46 years old when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The disease started innocently enough — a slight slurring of speech that became increasingly pronounced in the fall of 2010. His diagnosis came in January 2011, and he passed away four years later. Darrell had always been active with a love for travel, food and time at his cottage.
“Darrell quickly decided the one thing he wouldn’t do was give in to it,” says Deana. “He decided to live totally focused on what he could do and he refused to focus at all on what he was losing.”
He lost his voice three months after his diagnosis which meant giving up his sales career. He decided to focus on his photography and spent the next two years traveling from one end of Nova Scotia to the other taking photographs. He was completely immersed in it. “I would be ready to go,” Deana recalls, “and he would look at me and say I’m just going to be a few more minutes Deana. He told me once ‘When I’m doing this I don’t think of anything else.’”
As the disease progressed Darrell turned to the ALS Clinic at the QEII’s Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre for help. He received treatment from a multidisciplinary team, including a respirologist, neurologist, physiatrist, gastroenterologist, registered nurse, speech language pathologist, dietitian, physiotherapist and occupational therapist to help him deal with the new challenges that presented themselves almost daily.
“ALS patients experience a lot of problems in a relatively short time,” says Dr. Ian Grant, a neurologist at the QEII and part of the ALS Clinic team. “They have issues with mobility, communication, swallowing, and they can experience pain. They require care from various specialties – and having those services in the same place can make things easier for the patient.”
The clinic operates once a month, though patients have access to the medical team whenever they need it.
“We don’t always have all the answers but we try to let patients know what’s available. They make the decisions about their treatment; we’re here to help them make an informed choice and then facilitate that choice,” says Melanie Ellerker, a registered nurse at the clinic.
For Darrell, those choices meant the chance to live a full life with the disease. When he lost his voice he began talking through his iPad. As he lost the ability to walk he used a walker, a scooter and finally a wheelchair. “He went with the flow,” says Deana. “Whatever was available to him to continue living. We packed up that wheelchair and we went to Toronto, out to Seattle, down to the Panama Canal, and to the Caribbean. We traveled constantly.
That was how he faced it,” says Deana. “He really believed that life was for living, and so focusing on what was happening to him was a waste of time, as far as he was concerned. We had 30 years together. Darrell lived life well and fully.”