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LAS VEGAS -- Team Ford Lincoln President Steve Olliges and lifelong friend Chris Curtis have been teammates in the rough and rugged sport of off-road racing since they were in high school more than 30 years ago.
However the two along with many Southern Nevadans have now teamed up to help defeat ALS, which Curtis is now facing head-on during his own battle with the disease that surfaced about three years ago.
A native Las Vegan who is now a prominent local attorney, Curtis noticed symptoms in May of 2012. “I had noticed some cramping in my left hand,” he said. “I’m a hiker and a climber and I was climbing White Pinnacle in Red Rock Canyon when my left hand lost grip on a rope. I fell and tore the labrum in my left shoulder.”
It was at that moment that Curtis knew something was wrong. He had climbed there many times before without any issues, but this time his left hand was not working properly and he believes it was the disease process that caused the tumble down the mountain.
“I later began to notice that there was more cramping and increased weakness in my left hand, and it prompted a doctor visit,” he recalled recently while chatting at Team Ford in the northwest valley.
The decline in his health has been a massive adjustment both mentally and physically, but the energetic 52 year-old Curtis is not giving up. No, it is not easy, but even with dire consequences facing him every day; the man’s attitude is a true example of someone who refuses to give up.
“He doesn’t look any different than any other person right now,” said April Mastroluca, executive director of the ALS Association Nevada Chapter.
Little did Curtis know at the time that his biggest challenge was not in courtroom or while running an off-road race. Instead, it was determined that Curtis was experiencing the first signs of ALS after visiting with a local neurologist.
“I knew in my mind that I had it, but I didn’t have a formal diagnosis. After almost a year of testing, I decided to go to a specialist team at UCLA,”” he said. “I got worked up there, and on July 15, 2014, I learned that I had ALS.”
“I’m extremely fortunate because it’s been three years since I noticed the first symptoms and the average ALS survival rate is only 3 years,” said Curtis. My symptoms have been relatively mild. I did know I had the disease but wasn’t too far into the process.”
Over a year later, there are other symptoms of ALS that Curtis has recently begun to experience. “I have lost considerable strength and muscle mass in my left hand, arm and leg, and have begun to lose my appetite as well,” he said. “As the disease progresses, motor neurons are destroyed and ultimately the ALS patient no longer has any voluntary control of any muscles. At the end, I will no longer have control of my muscles and will lose the ability to speak, eat, move and ultimately, breathe. I will be ‘locked in’…when you cannot move and you cannot talk. I’m really not looking forward to that. ”
Olliges is deeply concerned about his long-time friend and instituted a fundraiser at the dealership to mount a battle against one of society’s most brutal diseases. With $200 from each car sale going directly to the cause, sales jumped; and in what might be considered a true example of Karma, Team Ford was named the top-selling Ford dealership in its region in August.
Team Ford was off and running and so wasTeamCurtis4aCure.org. Olliges raised over $27,000 for TeamCurtis4aCure.org, all of which was donated to the ALS Association, Nevada Chapter.
“Steve and I are close. I had called him and he knew something neurological was going on,” Curtis said. “He was worried about what it was and it was very hard to tell him that it was ALS. He is my brother”.
As they have in many years past, the pair ran in places like Primm, Nevada, Parker, Arizona and most recently the Vegas to Reno off-road race in August in Olliges’ Trophy Truck. As explained once by UMC trauma doctor Dr. Dale Carrison, race cars provide a tremendous adrenalin rush to clear the mind; and this time the result was no different.
“Racing in a Trophy Truck is the ultimate distraction,” said Curtis. “In Parker last year we teamed with Rob MacCachren and had an old school Ford Rough Riders themed paint scheme. When I got out of the truck, I realized how much I loved off-road racing and how long it has been a part of my life, mostly thanks to Steve. Being in an 880 horsepower Trophy Truck is like being an astronaut in that only so many people get the chance to experience it.”
Although knowing that his physical capabilities will be tested, he did not pass up another chance to race the Trophy Truck.
“It probably wasn’t the most prudent thing to do, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” Curtis recalled of the decision to run the Parker event. “I think maybe my racing days are behind me now, and I can tell you that a best friend like Steve is good to have around at a time like this.”
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the name of the former New York Yankee great, ALS is hounding and it’s daunting. However, updates in medicine are being added every day and Curtis may give up the traditional off-road racing, but he will never give up hope.
“There will be a lot of serious challenges in my future, and one of the biggest concerns I have is my inability to communicate,” he said. “I was guilty of putting my head in the sand for a while, and I only announced my illness publicly about several weeks ago. The truth is not a really chipper thing to talk about now and it wears on the people that care about me. It’s all part of the process and it’s all about adapting. I just do things a little differently now. People that know me know that I do not dwell on what I am facing in the future and focus on the present. I take every advantage of the time I have and my support group becomes more important each and every day.”
Meanwhile, Curtis and his old friend know better than to give up anytime soon. Off-road racers are tough whether they are running the Baja 500 in Mexico, the Mint 400 in Southern Nevada or facing a personal challenge.
“This has definitely changed me,” Curtis said. “It’s all about perspective. Yes, it sucks, but there are plenty of people that are not as fortunate as I am. The day I was diagnosed I went to the beach in Dana Point. My family has so many wonderful memories of our kids at that beach. We have a ton of photos there, and it is like a timeline of my family’s growth, so I went back to that place. I met a woman whose 22-year-old daughter had just enrolled in law school when a drunk driver hit her. The daughter was in a coma for months and had recently recovered to the point where she could travel, but she could not move or speak. The mother took her daughter to that beach every weekend because it was her favorite place.
“The poor woman had been through a horrific experience, and had never even had a chance to experience the love, the joys of young life, marriage, raising a family, travel, and all of the other blessings I have had. I have had a great life and have absolutely nothing to complain about. I don’t have a bucket list, because I have already done almost everything I wanted to. I’m not happy about what I’m facing, but there’s no woe-is-me on my agenda.”
Time is of the essence, though.
“We created TeamCurtis4acure.org on August 1 and time is the enemy,’ Curtis explained. “When patients with ALS become ‘locked in’ their only hope for connection is through technology. Too many ALS patients make the decision to deny themselves access to communication and lifesaving resources due to the financial burden it creates. It takes an average of $250,000 per year to care for an ALS patient. Access to speech generation devices and eye-tracking technology is not only costly, but takes time to learn. While these resources make communication possible, there is still a huge gap in the ability to communicate in real time. It is our goal to fund the discovery of new technologies that will make communication easier and faster, provide access to greater mobility and support as independent a lifestyle as is possible. We want to provide access to these technologies to those patients without the financial wherewithal to have them.
“However, there is nothing that’s going to change our loyalty to the ALS Association Nevada Chapter. I have never been busier in my than I am right now, but I need to make time for this.”
Curtis’ family includes his wife of 23 years, Ellen, along with sons Cameron, 22, and Coleton 18.
Cameron is a student at UNR while Cole is a student at Boise State. Ellen is the managing director of SK+G Advertising.
The ALS Association Nevada Chapter has a fundraiser called “Food Is Art” at Springs Preserve Nov. 14.
Further information is available at www.alsanv.org and TeamCurtis4aCure.org
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