By Seth Daniel
Kathryn McKenna was in the middle of reinventing herself – getting into peak physical condition – when her life took an abrupt turn to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
McKenna, a life-long Salem resident with deep roots in that city, now lives at the Dapper McDonald House in the Leonard Florence Center for Living (LFCFL) on Admirals Hill – and she couldn’t be happier and more hopeful.
On Sunday, she and a huge contingent of family and friends will participate in the ever-popular Walk for Living on the campus of LFCFL and on Admirals Hill. The walk is expected to attract 1,000 or more people raising money to help expand opportunities at the home – which is considered on the forefront of facilities in the world for treating and managing ALS.
“When I envision a Leonard Florence resident with ALS, Kathryn McKenna was the ideal candidate,” said Barry Berman, CEO. “That’s because Kathryn has a zest for life and living at the Leonard Florence allows her to continue living a very active and engaged and dignified life. We all realize that if Kathryn was in a traditional nursing home, she would be leading a much different life. Our staff are experts in understanding the nature of the disease, thus offering our residents the highest quality of life possible.”
McKenna led an active life for certain. The son of a famed basketball coach at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, she was always in top shape and active – known as a chatter box.
She was a flight attendant, was multi-lingual, traveled the world and worked at the Lahey Clinic.
That active lifestyle was cut out from under her starting in 2014 when she noticed changes. She was diagnosed in 2015, but the degenerative disease has not taken completely taken away her active nature – especially since coming to the LFCFL in January.
“It was very hard to leave my apartment in Salem overlooking the Harbor, but I had to do it,” she said. “it was the best decision I ever made. I’m very independent. I was very chatty and that has changed, but I still get my point across…I believe in a cure by 2020.”
Many of the things that McKenna and the other residents at the two ALS homes at the Leonard Florence would not be afforded them at other facilities. Designed by resident Steve Saling, who has ALS, the homes are customized with technology and the staff is trained specially to meet the needs of those with ALS.
That combination, plus a very active and understanding administration, has led to remarkable achievements in quality of life for individuals who were written off in the past.
McKenna, 60, said she had been inspired by a co-worker at Leahy to go back to college and finish her degree in 2013. She decided to major in Sports Science. While working two jobs, exercising with 20 year olds and taking care of her elderly mother – the active woman began to notice some inconsistencies.
“I knew something was wrong in 2014,” she said. “My speech was getting impaired. One day I was working out and my colleague, who was so nice, noticed and said, ‘Kathryn, you don’t have to do anymore.’ I was diagnosed with ALS in 2015, but I still had a semester of school left until graduation. I had promised my dad I would finish, so I went back…It was hard during that semester, but I wanted to persevere.”
And that she did, graduating from Salem State in 2015 with her degree.
Now, with that same die-hard spirit, she keeps focused on eating and attitude.
“The doctor told me when I was early on that appetite and attitude would determine my quality of life,” she said. “I work very hard to keep my appetite up and my attitude positive.”
She and many other residents of LFCFL and the community will bring that same positive, can-do attitude to Admirals Hill on Sunday, where critical fundraising and fun are set to take place.
“The walk certainly helps raise money, but it also gives our residents a sense of well-being when they see how many people that do care about their living situation,” said Berman. “We are now working on opening our third residence, but obviously that will take time with the fundraising.”
The LFCFL Walk for Life will begin registration on Sunday, Oct. 1, at 8 a.m., with the Walk beginning at 10 a.m. A celebration will follow.