Diving for Freedom - David Leonard

David Leonard is a self-professed athlete. As a young man he loved to lift weights and run, maybe not as quite as much as Forrest Gump, but he did love to run.

“Sometimes on the way home from junior college in Ithaca, N.Y., I’d have my buddy let me out of the car and I’d run the rest of the way home. I’d run 15 or 20 miles,” David said.

He remembers vividly the first time he ran in a marathon — 26.2 miles — in Lackawanna, N.Y. He also remembers hitting that invisible wall many runners experience somewhere around mile 22.

“It was like someone flipped a switch. I used up all my energy. I felt like I had nothing left, but I knew I had to keep going. I was going to complete the race and cross the finish line,” David said. “At the time, I didn’t know finishing this race would become a metaphor for my life.”

David T. Leonard was born June 16, 1957, to Thomas and Susanna Leonard. David was the oldest of the four children — two brothers and one sister. His mother died when David was only 10 years old. It was a painful loss for David and his younger siblings and of course for his dad. But the pain and suffering of his wife’s death did not diminish his father’s commitment and responsibility to his children. David has always been inspired by his father's strength and courage.

“I learned a lot about how to deal with emotional and physiological stress from my dad,” David said. “He could’ve checked out and abandoned his responsibilities, but he didn’t. He dealt with the loss of my mom and worked through the pain. He knew he had to keep going. Now he’s an 81-year-old curmudgeon who still inspires me.”
The toughness it takes to finish marathons and the ability to endure the mental and emotional pain of loss, which David learned as a child and college student, would serve him well as he entered his mid-20s. That’s when his “uninvited guest,” multiple sclerosis, knocked on his door.

“I remember the first sign of MS in 1984. It was while I was running in the park in South Buffalo. All of the sudden I had this weakness in my legs. It was like someone shut the power off and then turned it back on. I had some visual problems, too. It was scary, but my first thought was ‘Oh no, it’s a brain tumor,’ ” David said.

At the time he was working as a correction officer in the New York State Department of Corrections. Sensory pain and mild illness gradually began to plague David’s life. But as a young man with a wife and new baby, the pain was secondary to the fear of losing his job. For several years David worked through the pain, but in the back of his mind he knew something was wrong. The symptoms were persistent while at work at the prison. David experienced sensitivity to heat and cold. He’d sometimes stagger and struggle to stand tall. He knew even momentary signs of weakness would be noted by the inmates. Though he enjoyed his job, he knew his career as a corrections officer was coming to an end.

Fortunately, a co-worker assured him there was nothing to fear if an official diagnosis revealed something serious or potentially debilitating. In fact, David soon learned there were several assistance programs available to him if needed. This gave him great comfort and the peace of mind he needed to seek an official diagnosis. "That information kind of helped gird my loins and gave me the strength to go to the medical people and find out what that heck was wrong.”

In 1992, David received an official diagnosis. It was multiple sclerosis. His immediate reaction was not unlike many newly diagnosed MS patients. It was a relief to know that it wasn’t a brain tumor. MS is a terrible disease but as David said, “It’s not a life-threatening disease — it’s a lifestyle threatening disease.”

Because David had suspected MS might be his diagnosis, he had studied the disease, treatments and current drug trial programs. After his diagnosis, his immediate mission was to work through the pain and seek the best available clinical drug trial program he could find. He was ready to fight MS, remain employable and support his family. Part of his determination came from a fear of losing everything. But the memory of his father who faced the pain of loss, yet refused to let it define his future, was always within easy reach.

When David first met with his doctor, he had stacks of information regarding MS to share and a request to be included in any clinical drug trial. In 1992, his request was granted. There was only one catch; it was a double-blind trial, which left a possibility that he might receive a placebo. Undaunted, David grabbed every opportunity to learn from medical professionals, associations and advocacy groups dedicated to the fight against MS. He, too, has dedicated himself to the cause, and in 2002 opened the doors of his counseling practice, Phoenix Rising. David believes that like the mythical Phoenix of Greek lore, people recently disabled due to accident or illness can live again and enjoy active productive lives. The primary focus of his practice is helping young men with families.

When asked, ‘What is the first thing you say to a young person you are counseling?’ David chuckled then said, “Well, I’ll tell ya, the first thing I don't say is everything is going to be OK. You’ve first got to face the fact that you have experienced a tremendous loss. It can’t be diminished. It can’t be put off to the side. You’ve got to deal with it. There’s going to be tough times, but we’re going to find the way out.”

David began his counseling practice in a spare room of his house. His way of determining the quality of a session is often determined by the quantity of laughter emitted from the room. Quite often, the young men David counsels leave with a new sense of what is really important in life. They’re assured that there is at least one person in the world who truly understands their pain.

“I can’t tell you how many times after a counseling session the guys tell me, ‘you know Dave, I feel a lot better.’ I always tell them, ‘I do too.’ Anyone who thinks they can get through a loss like this alone is just fooling themselves. If I can be a mentor, a guidepost or even a source of inspiration I’ve accomplished my goal.”

By all accounts, David has done just that. Not only is he counseling, but he has also renewed his athletic career. As a founding member of the Western New York Adaptive Water Sports Association, he now water skis in the summer and snow skis in the winter. He has recently taken up scuba diving and has traveled to the Florida Keys and Cozumel with his diving buddies.

“Once while we were in the water preparing to dive, my diving partner took a picture of my empty wheelchair sitting there on the dock. All I could think was, “I'm free from “Old Man Gravity.” I’m free for a little while from it pulling and tugging. It’s a beautiful thing.”

It is a beautiful thing. Not only because he is free from “Old Man Gravity” but also from his uninvited guest, MS.

Run, David, run.

David may be reached at dleonardcrc7@aol.com.

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