What are the Odds?
by Hank Brandli, USAF, Lt. Col. Ret.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) remains an incurable disease of largely unknown origins. And until why it happens is discovered, we are left to deal with the unknowns of its origins -- and some amazing and against-all-odds situations and facts. In 1955 I graduated from Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the United States,and was accepted at the Engineering school at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. In addition to the academic hurdles ahead, I was also going to be challenged by a daily commute from my home in Roslindale to Medford -- a journey that would involve four connections each way (buses, trolleys and trains). Tufts offered incoming students a week of orientation before classes began, and my Mother encouraged me to sign up for it, which I did. I was assigned to Carmichael Hall, a brand new dormitory built on a site with a commanding view of the campus.
During this time, I came down with some very strange symptoms: numbness in parts of my legs and arms; abnormal reflexes in my legs; bowel problems; and different sensations over my body (like electric shocks in my spine when I bent over and kept my legs straight).
In 1971, some eight years after the strange symptoms began, I had been promoted to the rank of Major and had obtained two M.S. Degrees - in Aeronautics/Astronautics and Meteorology. I also was finally diagnosed with MS. This third MS degree was the unwelcomed one.
I remained in the Air Force until 1976. I was using a cane (and sometimes a wheelchair) and was forced to retire. I tried to fight the retirement because my work was of such quality that I had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel two years before my contemporaries. My efforts were not successful. My MS was the chronic progressive type, and my symptoms had continued to worsen.
I did a lot of consulting work, began writing , pursued some various other jobs and continued my life. In the year 2000, while living in Florida, I just happened to think about Luke Bertini, one of my three freshman week orientation roommates. Luke found the engineering program too difficult and had left college before our planned graduation in 1959. I knew he still lived in Wallingford, Connecticut, and I decided to give him a call and find out how he was doing.
When we had first met, Luke was about three years older than me and had graduated from the prestigious Choate School . He had taken me under his wing during that initial Tufts orientation in 1955. I tracked down his telephone number on my PC in “Yahoo” and gave him a call.
When Luke answered the phone, he did not remember me just from my name, and it took me a while to explain who I was. I told him about the orientation week and reviewed the facts about the four of us sharing the room. I also reminded him that he had been helpful to me,and he began to recall the situation. He asked me if I was tall (I am 6’ 2”) and my answer was yes. He said he did remember me,but that was about it. We made some small talk about Connecticut and Florida, and then I asked him how he was doing. He replied, “Not very well, Hank”.
I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that he was in a wheelchair and that he had multiple sclerosis. I stopped short in my conversation, and I actually started to cry because I hadn't called him to tell him about my problems. I had just wanted to talk to him. Then, I said, “Luke, you won’t believe this, but I have MS too”.
We compared our situations. We both had the same kind – progressive M.S. He had had it for about 20 years and had come down with its initial symptoms while teaching science in middle school; I had had it for 35 years. We continued our conversation, including what he had done after leaving Tufts. He had enrolled at Southern Connecticut State College and was drafted into U.S.Army from ‘58 to ’60.After discharge,he completed his BA degree and earned an MS degree from Trinity College in Hartford.
I told him about the military, etc. I called him a couple of more times. We made small talk, and we kind of kidded about the other two guys in the room. I never thought any more of it for a long time.
Some five years later, in June of 2005, I had written my third article for Inside MS magazine about the hurricanes that affected Florida in 2004. This article told of all the work my wife did in dealing with the difficulties of the storm, the power outages, my disability, and other matters.
About two months after the article was published ,I received an e-mail from a guy who said, “Dear Hank: Great article in “Inside MS” magazine, and I think I know you. I went to Tufts and I lasted three years . Then, I enlisted into the U.S. Army for three years and worked for a year before I went back to Tufts and graduated in 1963."
He then proceeded to tell me that he too had had MS for 11 years. He retired from Pharmacia (formerly Upjohn) and Dow Chemical after 26 years in Polyurethane R&D, and as a self employed plastic consutant for 15 years. He signed his name Hank Bonk -- the third guy in that Tufts dormitory room that first week in September 1955.
I called him and refreshed his memory about how we shared a room during orientation week at Tufts fifty years ago.Hank had been visiting Luke regularly while he was at home and continues to visit him at the Masonic Healthcare Center in Wallingford,Conn. where he now resides. He told him about our conversation.
We immediately started talking about the fourth guy, John Banas, and hoped to God that he didn’t have MS. John and Hank ended up being roommates during that first year. In addition, they were fraternity brothers; Delta Tau Delta.
Luke had pledged Delta Upsilon.
We both decided to try and track John down.
We discovered that he had become a doctor and cardiologist, and that he last resided in Morristown, New Jersey. After I called the Morristown Memorial Hospital I was advised that John had moved on. I finally tracked him down through a mutual friend of a another doctor.
He now lived in the Midwest. I called him and told him who I was -- a fellow classmate of the class of 1959 at Tufts. John then graduated from Tufts medical school was a consultant and lecturing in cardiology.
I was elated to find out he did not have MS. He was shocked by my MS story and the stories of the other two former Tufts freshman orientation week roomates .
Three of four guys who spent that orientation week together developed and now have chronic progressive Multiple Sclerosis. I wonder if we had been exposed to something, had eaten something or had done something that week that could have in some way contributed to the genesis of our common illness.
Less than 1 per 1000 young men contract progessive MS. The odds that three of four orientation week roommates would each contract progressive MS years later are extremely small and maybe infinitesimal. What are the odds?
THANKS TO WILK