As I wrote here on June 21, I was excited about attending an HDSA convention for the very first time. Alas, that same day I came down with a fever and nasty sinus infection and could not travel.
I did not know about the award. At home recovering, I happened to check e-mail on the night of the 25th. I was stunned! Several messages stated that I was receiving the award and that the announcement prompted a standing ovation. (A record 1,000-plus people attended the convention.)
Don Barr, the chairman of the HDSA Board of Trustees, and Louise Vetter, CEO, presented the plaque, accepted in my absence by trustee Rob Millum, my friend and also a member of the HDSA-San Diego board.
An award for inspiration
HDSA gives this award “to someone who has been an inspiration to others,” Barr told the audience at the HDSA closing ceremony. He noted my work as a member of the HDSA-San Diego board, gene-positive blogger, stem-cell research advocate, and speaker at biotech companies.
Above, Don Barr (left), Rob Millum, and Louise Vetter with my plaque (photo by Ashley Miller). Below, a detail of the plaque (click on image to see larger view) (photo by Gene Veritas).
Barr stated that I had “given a face to this often faceless disease” and “inspired countless individuals who are at risk or gene-positive to express themselves without fear and to let them know that they are not alone in the face of HD.”
For those who fight
Shana Martin, the HD activist, top athlete, and model, posted a note of congratulations on my Facebook page, as did friends and acquaintances in the HD community.
“I am stunned and flattered to receive this recognition, and sad that, because of illness, I could not attend the convention,” I responded to these notes. “I want to remember my mom Carol, who died of HD in 2006, and my ‘HD warrior’ father Paul, her caregiver, who died in 2009. The honor is for the battle they fought – and for the battle that our entire community fights each day.”
On that night, I deeply missed Mom and Dad. They would have been proud of me. I felt sorrow that the collective efforts of HDSA, researchers, and advocates like me had not produced a treatment in time to save Mom, who died at the age of 68 after battling HD for more than 15 years.
My parents, Paul and Carol, in January of 2004 (photo by Gene Veritas)
I know, too, that this award is not just for me, but for everybody affected by HD: the at-risk, the gene-positive, the symptomatic, the families, and the unsung heroes of America, the caregivers.
And I have huge shoes to fill in the HDSA Person of the Year tradition, which stretches back more than ten years.
Here’s a list of past awardees, in reverse chronological order: 2010, Katie Moser; 2009, Kris O’Brien; 2008, Bob Leck; 2007, Frank Hiscock; 2006, Gary Nash; 2005, Bruce Veneklase; 2004, Bryan Medrano; 2003, Karen Milek; 2002, Gary Elliott; 2001, Phil Hardt; 2000, Marc Church.
A new departure
For me, the Person of the Year Award is not an endpoint, but a new jumping off point.
As Don Barr noted in making the presentation, I long worked behind the scenes for the HD cause. In 2010 and 2011, however, I began exiting the “HD closet” by giving several speeches, going on the radio, and posting videos of myself on the web.
I hope to use the award’s prestige to build even greater awareness about HD and to encourage the research community to redouble its efforts in the search for treatments and a cure.
I especially hope that I can use this award to combat the stigma surrounding HD and other neurological diseases.
Time for leadership
I’ve reached a stage in the cause, and in my life as a gene-positive person, when I must exercise leadership.
I must get back in the HD trenches to continue my fight as before. I cannot shy away from new challenges such as the need to help prepare the HD community for potential clinical trials for the possible drugs now in development in labs. (On July 30, I’ll be speaking on this topic at an HDSA symposium in Seattle.)
Leadership takes place on many levels and in many venues of life: family, work, community, religious organization, advocacy, and politics.
Everybody can lead in his or her own unique way. All of us in the HD community must play our part to strengthen our movement.
I’ll be with you, shoulder-to-shoulder, as we work for better care and seek the cure.