ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, is a neuromuscular disorder that attacks nerve cells along pathways in the brain and spinal cord. Recently, Dr. Arash Farhadi, medical director of the Outpatient Neurology Services and Neurodiagnostics Lab at Anne Arundel Medical Center, helped me to better understand the technical side of the disease.
Essentially, ALS causes the nerve cells to degenerate and die. The nerves are replaced with scar tissue. Simultaneously, the ability of the brain to control muscle movement dies with them, causing site specific paralysis.
The disease is devastatingly progressive. Nerves control muscle movement, so as damage spreads, the muscles that control swallowing, chewing and breathing are eventually lost. Patients in the later stages of ALS are totally paralyzed.
Because ALS attacks only motor neurons and voluntary muscle control, sight, smell, taste and the mind remain unaffected. Patients often remain alert but are no longer able to communicate, eat or even breathe without assistance.
The disease is always fatal. Currently there is no treatment or cure.
Leslie Schwartz of Annapolis is a medical social worker. Her husband is the chief medical officer at Anne Arundel Medical Center, and her daughter is a pediatric intensive care nurse. Despite being immersed in the medical world, until 2000, she had never met a person with ALS.
Each year in America, approximately 5,000 people are diagnosed with ALS, most between the ages of 60 and 65, but some as young as 20 or as old as 80. Only about 30,000 people across the country have the disease at any given time. So it isn't necessarily unusual that, at the time, Schwartz didn't have friends or relatives with the disease.
That all changed when a friend's mother was diagnosed with ALS. She frequently joined Schwartz and other Key School moms for a weekly coffee clache at The Main Ingredient. Schwartz was able to witness the rapid progression and sad conclusion of the disease first-hand. Most patients die within three to five years of diagnosis.
Wanting to comfort her friends and seeking a way to productively soothe her own emotions, Schwartz hosted a party at her home, inviting several area artisan acquaintances to showcase their wares.
What started as an evening of fellowship blossomed into the ALS Artisan Boutique.
Now in its 12th year, the Boutique has raised more than $250,000 for ALS. Money is donated directly to patients in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and pays for equipment such as walkers, wheelchairs and respirators that can help improve the quality of life for ALS sufferers.
On Sunday, the ALS Artisan Boutique will host 55 local vendors at the Sheraton Annapolis Hotel off Jennifer Road in Annapolis. Of those vendors are five culinary companies, each showcasing handmade, all natural foods made with fresh ingredients.
What I found most compelling about each of these vendors is how the owners - all women, some of them stay-at-home-moms - found a passion and venue for their creativity. Through diligence and hard work, they are building successful companies, some of which are now thriving in large area grocers and one of which was recently featured as an outstanding local producer in Martha Stewart Living.
Each is making a dedicated effort to contribute to their community. The Artisan Boutique provides an opportunity to help others while also marketing their goods.
Here are their stories. I hope you will visit the Boutique this Sunday. If you aren't able to but still want to help, contact the ALS Association at http://www.alsa.org.