Lending a hand

The first symptom was nothing more than a weakening of his left hand. It started in the summer of 2015.

Mike Emily, 43, didn’t think much of it as he worked with his hands every day at his job at Aisin USA Manufacturing in Seymour and when building the remote-controlled aircraft he loved to fly at Freeman Field.

He went to the doctor and came away with possible causes of muscle strain or carpal tunnel syndrome — nothing too concerning.

Emily continued to work, but instead of getting better, his symptoms grew worse.

After the first of the year, his right hand started to show similar problems.

“By February, it was getting difficult for me to write,” he said.

In late May 2016, about a year after the onset of the weakening in his left hand, it became apparent something much more serious was going on.

“I got to work one day and couldn’t pick up the tools I needed to do the work I needed to do,” he said.

After 13 years at Aisin, he took a medical leave and continued to visit doctors to try to figure out what was wrong.

The next symptom was even more alarming for Emily and his wife, Sally.

“Eventually, I started having trouble breathing after I was off work for a while,” he said. “And that’s when I became real concerned.”

It was in July 2016 when the Emilys learned the news that would change the course of their lives.

At just 42 years of age, Mike Emily was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is a rare disease that attacks the voluntary nervous system, affecting the function of nerves and muscles, including those used to speak and swallow. A little more than 6,000 people are diagnosed in the United States each year, and there are an estimated 20,000 people currently living with the disease.

Although medication and therapy can slow the disease’s progression and reduce discomfort, there is no cure.

It wasn’t but a few days after his diagnosis that Emily was hospitalized for respiratory failure because of the weakening of the muscles in his diaphragm that help with breathing.

Even though he could no longer work or drive, he could still walk and was able to get out of the house to go to his appointments or to visit family and friends.

But then the muscles in his legs began to weaken.

“Once I realized that, I no longer wanted to attempt to go up and down stairs,” he said. “I was afraid of falling.”

As time went on, Emily became more and more unstable and found himself spending most of his time in just one room of their home.

“As things progressed, my world got smaller and smaller,” he said.

Now, Emily uses a wheelchair because his legs are too weak for him to walk, and he has an oxygen machine to help push air into his lungs.

The wheelchair allowed Emily to get around better in his home, but he and his wife began to worry about how they would get him out of the house in the event of an emergency.

“The biggest concern was in case of necessity,” he said.

That is what led the Emilys to connect with Jackson County United Way. Premiere Hospice submitted a project request on behalf of the family for United Way’s annual Day of Caring event this past May.

Plans were to have volunteers build a wooden wheelchair ramp from the Emilys’ back door that would allow Mike to get outside again.

The project was assigned, and The Home Depot in Seymour completed the design of the ramp.

About a week and a half before Day of Caring, the project got pulled because of cost, and there weren’t enough volunteers with the needed skills to complete the work.

That’s when Ron Duncan stepped up and took the lead. Duncan is a maintenance employee for Jackson County Public Library and is on the Day of Caring committee.

“This was something that needed to be done,” Duncan said.

So he went to visit Mike and Sally.

“Mike was real helpful because when I first came over here, he told me where the drain lines and utilities were,” Duncan said. “So I went out and did some measurements to come up with a new design.”

Duncan didn’t have the original design plans from The Home Depot to work with, but he did have the materials list and was able to come up with a new design that reduced the cost.

He also was able to get discounted materials by working with a couple of local building supply companies.

Day of Caring, along with Premier Hospice and other donors, contributed enough money to make the project happen.

“The big thing with Day of Caring is usually when we do projects, they are for nonprofit groups, and they provide the materials, and we provide the labor,” Duncan said. “In this case, we didn’t want the family to be burdened by that cost.”

Emily said finances have been a struggle while he has been ill. He had to wait five months after he was approved for Social Security disability before he could start drawing that money.

“We didn’t have any meaningful income during that time,” he said. “We had a lot of help from family and friends to make ends meet.”

He’s thankful for the support his former employer showed by allowing him to remain on the company’s health insurance for an extended period of time.

“Aisin was very supportive of me. My insurance continued with the company for a very long time, I think until the end of that year,” he said. “I didn’t expect that. They were very good to me.”

Others who volunteered to help Duncan build the ramp were Seymour Police Chief Bill Abbott, Justin Amos and Doug Gregory from the Seymour Water Pollution Control Facility, Karen Brooks, Day of Caring co-chairwoman, and Tucker Gregory, Doug Gregory’s young nephew.

Abbott is the son of one of Mike’s good friends and mentor, Charlie Abbott, who also flies model airplanes.

Most of the ramp was completed after the crew spent a Friday, Saturday and Sunday working on it. Some finishing touches were added later, including a concrete pad at the end of the ramp.

None of the volunteers expected or wanted accolades for their work. They just wanted to make things a little better for Mike and his wife, Duncan said.

“This is why we do the Day of Caring. This is the type of community we want to live in,” Duncan said. “It’s going out and helping those who need the help. It’s one thing to go out and plant flowers for someone or go out and paint a fence or put down gravel for walkways. Those are all great, but when you get to be part of a project like this, you walk away with something more.

“We all take too much for granted,” he said. “In one day, their lives changed drastically, not even thinking the day before that this is what they’re going to be faced with the rest of their lives.”

For Duncan, seeing Mike’s expression when he was able to go outside his house for the first time in nearly a year was worth it. The only thing now is he wishes they could have installed the ramp sooner.

“First thing he did was look up, and he saw the sky, and he smiled,” Duncan said. “How often do we walk outside of our house every day, even if it’s just going to work? We glance around, we look up and we just go on. Here’s a case where he got to go outside, look up and it made him happy.”

Having spent so many years helping others learn how to fly model planes, Mike said he never thought he would be in a position where he needed help.

“I’m so grateful,” he said of the ramp and the volunteers who helped build it.

Sally said the new design of the ramp has worked “beautifully.”

Over Labor Day weekend, thanks to the ramp, Emily was able to spend the afternoon in his workshop with some of his friends from his model airplane club, the Southern Indiana Flying Eagles.

“It was nice to get out. We worked on a couple of small projects they brought with them,” he said.

For Sally, seeing her husband among friends doing what he loved was emotional.

“But it was great for him. He had a great afternoon with his buddies,” she said.

“I had a beer while I was out there, too,” Emily added with a satisfied smile.