Monday, May 18, 2009

Mark Wetzel: My Story

My father-in-law lived with ALS for 4 years. Though he's been gone for over a year now, it still astonishes me to think of how much LIVING he did during the time that he had the disease. And nearly all of it with limited mobility. He was an amazing father, husband, boss, friend, mentor, ALS activist...the list goes on.

He had an unbreakable spirit. He heard about a problem with passing the ALS registry act. "Let's go to Washington." He heard there wasn't enough money for research. "Let's raise some." Duke needed a patient to take 31 pills a day for clinical trials. "I volunteer." Walk his daughter down the aisle? "Wouldn't miss it for the world."

It is from him that I first learned of the indomitable will possessed by so many ALS patients. They are truly some of our greatest teachers, men and women of character through and through.

When my father-in-law was still healthy enough to travel, one of the things that we did as a family was take a vacation to Montana. It was the last big trip we had together, just a few weeks before I started the MBA program at Harvard Business School (HBS). By that time, I had resolved to make a "meaningful contribution" to ALS research while I was earning my MBA. Watching a loved one die a senseless death tends to do that to a guy.

While we were out in Montana, I learned of Prize4Life's story when Avi Kremer (HBS 2006) was awarded the ALS Association's Rand Prize for his work toward finding a cure. From the press release:

"Shortly after his diagnosis in 2004, Kremer set out with the other members of Section I (each of the 10 sections at the school is named after a letter of the alphabet) to raise $550,000 from the HBS community for ALS research."

"Half a million bucks," I thought. "From STUDENTS?" This guy's a fighter.

I resolved to seek Avi out when I got to campus, then put him out of my mind as I enjoyed the rest of the trip with my wife and her family. We settled down in Cambridge, and our long and delightful summer ended with the start of the school year.

At the end of MBA orientation I received my "section assignment," which is an HBS tradition. The section and its membership were to be the most important part of my MBA experience. Finding out the letter of the alphabet which denotes one's section is an exciting moment, arbitrary as it may be. I opened the webpage.

"Section I."

Avi's section. It was a sign.

A few weeks later, I stumbled upon a student organization that was offering fellowships to join non-profit Boards of Directors. I sat in on the presentation, and opened up the list of organizations looking for volunteers with the MBA skill set.


Avi's venture. You're kidding right? Where do I sign?

I was brought on board, and the rest is history. I've been around marketing, strategy, fundraising, and even got a chance to write a history of the organization as part of my MBA curriculum. I started out simply wanting to serve the organization as a volunteer, for the good of the cause. But as it often happens when one gives of oneself, my labors were returned to me in abundance. The lessons that Prize4Life has taught me will last a lifetime.

I've watched Prize4Life grow by multiples over the past two years, always driven by a passion to help the research community arrive at a cure. I have had the privilege of making that "meaningful contribution" to an organization that is close to research, close to industry, and close to patients. Being run by a person with ALS clarifies Prize4Life's purpose in a special way. Especially because he's one of the best managers any of us have ever had. Especially because he's become such a close friend.

And as for that vintage of Section I which I joined, they were anything but "arbitrary." "Second family" is a more appropriate descriptor. I am forever grateful that they chose to join us in the fight against ALS and raise thousands of dollars for a cure.

As I leave Cambridge next month, I'll be taking the cause with me. I've seen it happen to almost everyone who has known anyone with ALS - you get involved with the cause, and you just don't stop. As Avi often says, ALS has taken his speech but it will never take his voice. I've been proud to contribute my voice to Prize4Life and look forward to continuing to do so.

So that's how I got involved. That's MY story.

Tell me. What's yours?

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