Facing ALS with humor and grace: Vic Gilliam shares his gratitude for life’s blessings

July 2016 Posted in People
A Father’s Day photo with his family. Vic is surrounded by Becky, 27, on the left and Leanne, 30, on the right with wife Becky and her son, Taylor, 23, in front. The family is looking forward to celebrating Becky’s wedding to Sam Madge of Silverton in August.

A Father’s Day photo with his family. Vic is surrounded by Becky, 27, on the left and Leanne, 30, on the right with wife Becky and her son, Taylor, 23, in front. The family is looking forward to celebrating Becky’s wedding to Sam Madge of Silverton in August.

By Kristine Thomas

Republican State Rep. Vic Gilliam of Silverton acknowledges his speech and gait are slower. But it’s evident from what he has to say about the changes in his life that his wit, faith and determination are as strong as ever.

After having knee surgery in 2015, Gilliam began to suspect something wasn’t quite right with his health, especially since he was having difficulty walking.

In November, Gilliam, 62, shared with the community that his diagnosis indicates he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The neurological disorder attacks cells that control the muscles.

“My understanding is despite extensive research, ALS is still mysterious and there is not a definitive test or diagnosis,” Gilliam wrote at that time.  

On July 7, the Ride to Defeat ALS starts in Mount Angel, a bicycle ride Gilliam said he wishes he could do.

Ride to Defeat ALS
Saturday, July 9
6 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Mt. Angel.
Riders compete in 100-mile,
50-mi, 25-mi, 3-mi or 62-mi ride.
$35 adults and $15 under 18.
Register: $45 and $25, available day-of,
but participants ages 11 and up are
responsible for $150 fundraising goal
by day of event.
www.ridetodefeatALS.org

Talking about the disease is something he wishes he didn’t have to do.

When asked about the greatest challenges in his life, Gilliam said it is dealing with the politics of Salem and “keeping up with Sen. Fred Girod and Silverton Mayor Rick Lewis.” Gilliam is running for re-election for District 18 and plans to continue to serve as long as he is able.

Then, on a serious note, he shares the real challenge is having to slow down his pace of life.  “Exercises, walking, everyday chores and travel are all different from what I’m used to,” Gilliam said. “If I’m patient, I’m still able to function and progress each day.”

Gilliam said what gives him the strength to endure this journey are the “3 Fs.” 

“No, I’m not referring to (Silverton City Councilor) Ken Hector’s high school transcripts,” he quipped.

Instead, the “3 Fs are faith, family and friends.”

“Faith in the unfailing love of Jesus, which I’ve been reminded of from many folks like Steve Knox, pastor of Silverton First Christian; family, encouragement and support from my wife, Becky, daughters, stepson, two brothers and sister; and friends, too many wonderful supporters to list, but they include Ken Hector.”

While Gilliam is Hector’s state representative and boss, Hector said Gilliam is first and foremost one of his dearest friends.  “Vic is a man of great intellect and insight but blessed with an incredible sense of humor and common sense,” Hector said. “It is a testament to Vic that at a time when partisan politics is at its worst, Vic is beloved and respected by those on both sides of the aisle.”

Democrat State Rep. Brian Clem has worked with Gilliam and considers him a good friend. “Vic’s mind is undiminished and our respect for him has only grown as he’s faced this challenge with strength and courage,” Clem said.

Now the vice president of Hubbell Communications, Scott Bruun served with Gilliam in the state legislature.

“No one in Oregon’s legislative history has done more to bridge partisan divides than Vic Gilliam,” Bruun said in an interview. “His big heart, good cheer and constant humor brings people together and serves to gently remind legislators that their highest priority is Oregon, not a political party.”

When Bruun heard Gilliam’s news, he wrote on the website GoLocalPDX last December that he had two reactions, one being angry, “that a brutally unfair disease like ALS still exists in our world.”

“Yet in thinking about Gilliam,” Bruun wrote, “that anger gives way to hope. If anyone has the faith, the good cheer, the good humor and the love of life to fight a dread disease like ALS, it’s Vic Gilliam.”

Every once in awhile, especially when she is particularly tired, Becky Gilliam might think she has the right to be in a bad mood or impatient. Then, she thinks about her “sweet husband,” who inspires her. “Vic has never been angry about his condition or asked why,” Becky said. “He’s more concerned about the impact of his illness on others than how it is affecting him.”

Shortly after Vic’s diagnosis, Becky said they went through some “dark days.”

“We grappled with the loss of certain aspects of our life and future, hopes and dreams we all have to do things when we get older or when life settles down,” she said.

Becky said she believes it was when they started to really “take in the love of Jesus” that changed their perspective, took away the darkness looming over them and gave them different hopes and dreams for their future. Faith is what gives her the strength to watch her husband endure this.

“This illness would cause pain to anyone who loves someone dealing with it because it’s a cruel condition,” Becky said. “I know that this disease is a part of a world that is broken and our creator is deeply saddened when he sees us in pain because his plan never included sickness or death. Knowing this gives me some comfort.”

Becky choses to remind herself of their blessings … their loving and supportive parents, children, siblings and friends. And their love for one another.

Becky and Vic spend time praying and reading books and the Bible together and separately. They have had discussions on heaven and life after this earthly life.

“The fact is that either of us could have our life end tomorrow, in an accident or a heart attack,” Becky said. “We need to be sure we have no regrets and that we try to be bold and honest about what we believe and why we think we’re on this earth. The bottom line is that we are not alone, we are loved and our mandate is to love.”

Vic choses not to focus on his challenge. “There are many Oregonians with worse afflictions and life circumstances,” Vic said.

Instead, he choses gratitude. He shares what he learned from Lloyd Ogilvie, the former chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

“A few years ago, he gave some comfort to a friend going through a personal tragedy and challenge. Rev. Ogilvie indicated that he could not know the pain that my friend was going through but his advice was to focus on gratitude. Gratitude for the positive things in the past and positive things yet in the present.

“Gratitude for our Lord’s blessings from the honor of serving District 18 in Salem to looking forward to escorting my daughter down the aisle in August – these are the things that lift my spirits far above fear or grief,” Vic said. “I’ve applied the gratitude advice each day since my likely ALS diagnosis to great advantage.”

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