Family wages battle as man deals with setbacks of ALS
NEW ORLEANS - From the Jimmy Graham trade to the draft picks, the New Orleans Saints offseason has been full of surprises and questions. A former member of the Saints organization says all the moves are good ones. But football isn't the biggest part of Steve Landry's life, because he's now fighting for his life.
We first met Landry about a year and a half ago when he was in the early stages of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. He and his wife Rita endure the challenges of the disease on a daily basis, giving meaning to the wedding vows of "in sickness and in health."
When we first profiled Landry, the former equipment assistant for the Saints was still attending home games, as ALS progressively took over his body. His biggest fears at that time were getting a tracheostomy, and having to live off a feeding tube.
"That would be a big burden on my family and my wife, but we'll get through it," he said at the time.
Those fears are now gone, along with many aspects of his former life.
"A lot has changed. I have a feeding tube and trach, have lost about 35 pounds and have gotten much weaker."
ALS also stole his speech. Sometimes, Steve and Rita have to resort to lip reading, no matter how frustrating. To verbally communicate, he uses a device that types words and phrases through eye movements – even "I love you," which he communicated to his wife while we were with them.
"Show him one of your favorites," she urged him. "Bathroom number 2, poop please. Bathroom number 2, poop please," he typed out. "The kids get a kick out of that," she said.
Moments like that are needed, since a long term disease can put a tremendous amount of strain on any relationship. But Rita is always by his side. When she gets Steve out of bed, a process that can take half an hour, his life is in her hands. The respirator allowing him to breathe is slung over her shoulder.
"I pray to God to help give me the strength that I need, and that Steve needs, to get us through this."
"We have our good days and our bad days. My wife and daughter are much stronger than me, that is what keeps me going," Steve said.
"Steve's daughter has been a blessing," Rita said then. "If I didn't have Katie I wouldn't know what I would do," she said through tears. "It is tough, physically and emotionally."
"You look at that and you know that love is real. It's there and when you find it you're blessed, truly blessed," said respiratory therapist Anna Campo.
Campo gets to see it firsthand. Once a month, the respiratory therapist visits to make sure Steve is breathing properly. On this day, she helps him clear his lungs, using a machine to simulate a cough, something he no longer can do.
Steve Landry may have lost his ability to speak, but he and a lot of other people dealing with ALS have found a voice in Steve Gleason, who working to get legislation passed in Washington, D.C. that would provide technology to ALS patients to help them communicate.
"I think Steve and Team Gleason have done great things for the ALS community. I personally know how important these devices are so we can communicate with others," Landry said.
Despite all the changes, the Saints are still a constant in Steve's life. He was with them for 17 years, including the championship in 2010. The team may have shuffled its roster but Steve's faith in the black and gold is firm
"I miss my Saints family very much. I think their moves were great, the staff and coaches know what they're doing."
But there's one player he wishes could have stayed – Jimmy Graham.
"Jimmy is a great person, he will be greatly missed. At the end of last season he signed a football with a personal note to me," Landry said. The ball reads, "To Steve, thank you for putting up with me and helping me become a man in this locker room, no matter how lost or bad my day was, you always brightened it with a big smile and a kind word. Merry Christmas, Jimmy Graham #80."
Our lives are often marked by highs and lows and one of the brightest moments for Steve was when his daughter Katie got married last December. Instead of riding in a limousine, Katie opted to be with her father in his wheelchair accessible van.
"And when they say daddy's little girl, she really is daddy's little girl. And to see him go down the aisle with Katie and the pride that both of them had for each other was very emotional and touching," Rita Landry said.
This is every day for Steve and Rita, a husband and wife trying to find their way. With 5,000 new ALS cases diagnosed in the United States every year, many others are trying to find their way too.
"I pray for a cure every day, my family and I stay strong," Steve Landry said. "I also pray for my ALS family and everyone who has health problems."