View Full Version : After saving many drivers' lives, Swanson now faces fatal disease

09-27-2006, 07:05 AM

Kathy Swanson has a face you might recognize. As director of Minnesota's Office of Traffic Safety, she is often on TV encouraging seat belts and discouraging speeding, and drinking and driving.

Her efforts have helped save many lives in Minnesota. When she started her job about 30 years ago, 957 people had died in one year on Minnesota roads. Last year, 559 people died. That's 400 fewer deaths a year.

But these days, it's Swanson's life that is hanging in the balance.

A mere walk around the house is enough to exhaust Swanson on most days. It is the latest evidence of a crippling disease. The first evidence appeared about 18 months ago.

"I went to trim my fingernails one day and I couldn't push down on the clipper," Swanson says.

She thought it was weird, but nothing to worry about.

"Then one day I was reaching for a stack of dishes and I couldn't pick it up," she says.

These were the early signs of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressively fatal illness with no cure.

"And so my job is to stay as strong as I can, as long as I can," Swanson says. "To prepare myself and my family and my friends for what's going to come over the course of the disease."

The disease will slowly weaken her muscles until she cannot walk, talk, eat or breathe. She doesn't know what will go first or how long it will take, which is incredibly frustrating to someone who spends her life surrounded by stats.

"I want to know for a 52-year-old woman who gets diagnosed with these kind-of symptoms, what sort of life expectancy do I have?" Swanson says.

But there is no answer.

We do know about half of the people with ALS died within five years of diagnosis.

After her diagnosis, Swanson questioned why she spent so much time trying to make our roads safer.

"None of us get out of here alive," she thought.

But Swanson now realizes that she has something most crash victims don't: time.

"I don't know if it's humanly possible to prepare for death, I really don't," she says. "But I do think that having some amount of time lets you appreciate the gift of life."

Most of all, she appreciates her friends and family, known as "Kathy's Circle." They're organinzing a benefit to pay for all the things she'll need, including a power wheelchair, conversion van with powered folding ramp, doors and hatch, a breathing device that will stave off suffocation while she sleeps, and a device that will eventually help her communicate.

The fundraiser is scheduled for Thursday, October 26, from 5 to 10 p.m., at the Prom Center in Oakdale. For more information, you can contact Holly Zelinsky at 651-738-2366.

Friends have also helped Swanson revive her garden.

"So when I look out, I see not only the beautiful flowers, but the love and care of my family and friends," she says with a smile. "That is a gift."

At this time, Swanson is dealing with lack of function in one hand. She occasionally needs to wear ankle braces and is starting to notice some speech issues.

Swanson still works four days a week, about six hours a day, at the Office of Traffic Safety. Just last week she finished her term as past-chair of the National Governors Highway Safety Commission. Congressman Jim Oberstar paid tribute to her on the House floor earlier this month.

(Copyright 2006 by KARE 11. All Rights Reserved.)