‘Gleason’ forces Tom Tangney to reconsider view on life

Aug 1, 2016, 8:09 AM | Updated: 12:44 pm

No matter what condition he may be in physically, KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney has maintained the belief that he’d like his life extended as long possible, so long as his mental capacity is intact. At least, that was his perspective until seeing the documentary “Gleason,” which shows former Washington State football star and NFL hero Steve Gleason battle in painful detail through Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“It’s an incredibly grim view, because it’s realistic, of what it’s like when you’re struck down in the prime of your life,” Tangney said.

Gleason was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, at age 34. The former Cougar is a folk hero in Louisiana sports circles for his legendary blocked punt in the Saints’ first game back to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.

Related: Why we intently listen to people on death’s doorstep

Gleason was diagnosed with ALs in 2011. Within a month of his diagnosis of the fatal disease, he found out his wife was pregnant with their first child.

Gleason has no physical control over his body other than through blinking but his mental capacity remains as sharp as ever. The film is a mashup of 1,500 hours worth of tape that Gleason hoped would be a powerful memory for his son.

Co-host John Curley said the fascinating part of the film, which opened in theaters Friday, is that he doesn’t know why anybody would want to watch it, even though he believes it’s an important thing for people to see.

Tom: If you ever wondered what it would be like to be struck down in the prime of your life, and go through ALS, you see it, warts and all, over five years. Most people who suffer from ALS are dead by five years. Most people are not willing to go through the extraordinary surgical means just to stay alive.

Curley: He will try anything.

Tom: There is a life force that keeps him alive. And what’s interesting is he is doing it for his son. His son is cute as cute can be. But the wear and tear it takes on his wife and friends. It is an astonishing look at a marriage, how hard it is. His wife Michele, she married a football player. She was a party girl. At one point she says, “I have never wanted to be a saint.” She expected one kind of life and, instead, is a 24-hour caretaker with their entire lives consumed by this. It really raises all sorts of fascinating questions.

Curley: After witnessing the burden of the disease on Gleason and his family, do you still feels the same way about life — that you’d want to be kept alive as long as possible?

Tom: It’s not only the impact on my family, it’s the impact I’m having on myself. You watch what Steve is going through and you ask yourself: If this is life, is it worth it? It’s actually made me reconsider my idea that, no matter what, I want to live. It is such a hard life Steve lives. And at the same time, it is so admirable that he gives us some insight into what his life is like. There are scenes in the bathroom where he can’t do anything and he’s laughing and saying, ‘Film this, I want everybody to know.’ It’s a really valuable human document. At the same time, it really raises the question: What do you want in life?

Curley: You can tell he is doing it for a totally selfless reason. Because he has laid himself so bare. He is so incredibly vulnerable that there is no dignity at all in this. But he sees this as I’m going to die, I want my kid to see the courage.

Tom Tangney: What’s amazing is he’s already seen his child live for five years. And he might live for years to come. He can see, watch movies, read, translate his thoughts and type and write a blog through his eyes. His son is going to grow up with him alive in a certain way, and that personality still exists even when your physical attributes are no longer there.

Curley: You begin to examine what life is and what quality of life is. And then it becomes the eye of the beholder.

John Curley and Shari Elliker on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
  • listen to tom and curleyTune in to KIRO Newsradio weekdays at 3pm for John Curley and Shari Elliker.

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‘Gleason’ forces Tom Tangney to reconsider view on life