Friday, May 16, 2014

Support from unaffected relatives makes big difference in fight against Huntington’s disease

May is Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month.

Building awareness in the fight to defeat HD means expanding knowledge of this deadly brain disorder beyond directly affected individuals and their families. Ultimately, an effective campaign must actively involve the unaffected, both relatives and friends.

George Essig epitomizes the dedication of the unaffected relative.

For families like mine – my mother died of HD in 2006, and I carry the genetic mutation – individuals like George bring hope alive.

“I remember as a child my uncle walking in a very clumsy manner and at one family event even spilling his entire plate of food on the living room floor,” George says in the May 15 edition of “Faces of HD,” a daily autobiographical advocacy mini-profile disseminated via e-mail and social media by the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) during May. “People kind of looked away. My aunt cleaned things up amidst the awkwardness. My uncle got progressively worse and could not enunciate his words.

"I remember that the family thought his son, my cousin, as a young boy was mirroring his father's actions. We found out of course that he had child onset Huntington's disease. He died at age 19."

George Essig

Nobody in George’s extended Midwestern family wanted to talk about HD, he remembers.

“My parents would not talk about it,” he continues. “I learned my grandfather had it. My uncle tried to commit suicide in the basement of his home using gasoline from the lawnmower. My cousins' boyfriends at the time had to clean it up.”

In 1975, George moved to San Diego.

“Huntington’s was lost in my memory,” he says. “I am one of eight kids. It wasn't until my Dad was in his seventies that we figured he did not inherit the defective HD gene.”

About twelve years ago, George and a sister, Kathleen Martinek of North Carolina, started wondering what had happened to the branch of the family affected by HD. As they got back in touch, they learned of the terrible devastation wrought by the disease.

Eventually they would discover that HD had stricken not only his grandfather and uncle, but another uncle, an aunt, three cousins, and a number of second and third cousins.

The disease also caused collateral damage, devastating those who lived at risk but did not develop symptoms.

“I found out recently from (a cousin), now 69, who we had lost track of, that she experienced the deterioration of her entire family and her own mental health,” George says. “She doesn’t want to talk about Huntington’s disease. She and her husband adopted children.”

George assumes the cousin had preferred to adopt rather than run the risk of passing on the mutation to biological children. Each child of an HD-affected parent has a 50-50 chance of inheriting the mutation.

To learn more about HD and the effort to stop it, George contacted members of HDSA-San Diego. In 2006, he joined the chapter board of directors. (I served on the board from 1998-2010.)

“I would like to help raise money for a cure and educate people about Huntington’s – starting with my own family and friends,” George said in an article about him that I wrote for the HDSA-San Diego newsletter.

I noted that George and his wife Theresa lived in Poway, CA. The couple has three grown daughters, who work in medicine, law, and education. George's hobbies include growing avocados, and he enjoys swimming and bicycling.
For about a year, George quietly observed the other board members at work. At the time, he told me he was searching for an effective niche on the board.

George Essig studies documents at the May 2007 meeting of the HDSA-San Diego board of directors (photo by Gene Veritas).

George had an infectious smile, but he was also very earnest and persistent in his efforts to make a difference for the cause.

A television and radio marketing specialist, George started to parlay his contacts in the local business, media, and pro sports communities into support for HDSA. He also generated ideas for fundraisers and advocacy efforts.

In 2012, George became the HDSA-San Diego board president. Since then, he has devoted most of his work days to leading the chapter’s continuing efforts to raise awareness and obtain funds for research towards treatments and a cure.

That year, he presided over the chapter’s 12th annual gala, which raised a San Diego chapter gala record $155,000 for HDSA.

“Volunteering works both ways as I have learned that I get a great deal in return and dream of the day, which we are all encouraged about, that a treatment for HD will be discovered,” George says in his HDSA profile. “And of course, that day can’t come soon enough.”

After reading his profile, I e-mailed George: “Thank you for sharing your family's powerful and haunting story – and your message of hope. If more unaffected relatives of the affected helped out, as you do, we'd be much further along in this fight.”

Learn more about George and his advocacy in the photos below. To donate to HDSA, please click here.

George and Theresa Essig (right) with San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (in blue tie) and Essig daughters and sons-in-law at 2009 HDSA-San Diego Celebration of Hope Gala (photo by Mike Nowak). The San Diego chapter's signature event, the Hope Galas have brought in over $1 million for care and cure of HD since 2001. 

George speaks at the April 2011 meeting of the San Diego HD support group (photo by Gene Veritas). Each year the chapter board meets once with support group members to discuss chapter activities.

George with daughter Julie and wife Theresa at December 2013 screening of the HD documentary Alive and Well (photo by Gene Veritas)

George addresses the crowd just before the start of the 2014 HDSA-San Diego Hope Walk on April 13 (photo by Gene Veritas). The event garnered more than $40,000 for HD care and cure.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dear Gene,

I'm a journalist in Los Angeles. I've just published a memoir about my experience learning I was at risk for Huntington's, and the surprising journey where that led. It's an e-book called "Blood Brother: The Gene That Rocked My Family," and is available from Shebooks, Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. I also wanted to thank you personally for your guidance during this period, when I knew nothing about HD. I found your blog, and it was incredibly helpful as I learned about Huntington's and its effects on families. Part of my memoir deals with a visit I made to Washington with other HD families to lobby for the HD Parity Act. Anyway, many many thanks for your courage and advocacy for HD, and for bringing light to those of us who badly needed it.

Best wishes,
Mona Gable