Ataxia’s Sneak Attack

For those who don’t already know, the symptoms of ataxia sneak up on you. In my case, I was diagnosed with “hereditary spinocerebellar degeneration” in October 1984; but, looking back, I could see that there had been hints of the condition as early as 1982.

At that time I was serving as a naval flight instructor flying T-28s at VT-27 in Corpus Christi, Texas — an assignment that obviously required a high level of coordination. However, I recall three specific incidents that caught me a little off guard, but which I quickly dismissed for various reasons.

First, there was the time that I inexplicably lost my balance while talking to one of my students after his training flight. I wrote that off to being tired after my third instructional flight of the day. Now, you are probably wondering why I would even remember such a minor occurrence. I remember it because of the embarrassment I felt as I nearly knocked my student over.

The second incident happened when I was playing softball at a gathering with personnel who worked for me in my capacity as the squadron’s facility management officer. You’re probably expecting me to say that I was surprised to strike out. But quite the contrary, I hit the first pitch. The surprise came as I was running toward first base. About two-thirds of the way down the baseline my feet suddenly got tangled and I ended up tumbling to the ground. I dismissed this incident as being caused by the flight boots that I was wearing. I can just hear you saying “Why would anyone play softball in boots?” Actually, I was also wearing my flight suit because I was scheduled to fly right after the gathering.

The third and most problematic situation occurred while I was bowling during my off-time. I had been bowling in leagues and recreationally since I was about twelve years old and had an average of about 175 at the time. This particular evening I couldn’t hit the head-pin to save my soul. In fact, I can’t ever remember throwing as many gutter balls as I did that night. Needless to say, I was both confused and frustrated be cause I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. In retrospect, this incident was probably a very early indication of coordination problems which caused my timing to be off ever so slightly.

To be continued …

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