Over the last eight years, Doug McConnell estimates he’s swam hundreds of thousands of miles in honor of two people he can’t bring back.
“My father was diagnosed with ALS in 1994… It was shortly after he died that one of my sisters was diagnosed,” McConnell said. “To see someone you love receive that diagnosis, there is this feeling of powerlessness that you just can’t describe.”
Approximately 30,000 Americans are living with ALS, a degenerative disease that affects nerve and muscle control. The disease slowly robbed them of their movement, until they couldn’t swallow or even breathe.
“It’s a shipwreck to watch somebody go through that process,” McConnell said.
That feeling of helplessness led him to the water, founding A Long Swim so he could use every working muscle he had in their honor.
Less than 2,000 people in the world have successfully swam across the English Channel, but McConnell told everyone he knew that he would do it if they would donate to raise money for a cure. He finished the feat in 14 hours and 18 minutes, all while raising enough money to fund a full-time lab researcher at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“We finished about three in the morning on that one and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” McConnell said. “We now know the English Channel takes 40,548 strokes to get across.”
Every stroke across the water helps fund more lab time to find a cure.
“With the help of the fellowship we are undertaking many different approaches and projects,” said Mukesh Gautem, Feinberg School of Medicine. “I’m very very hopeful there will be some promising drugs very soon.”
Dr. Hande Ozdinler, a neurology professor at the Feinberg School, said there are two drugs approved for ALS so far, but many more in clinical trials.
“I think we know more about ALS than we have known in the past 50 years,” Ozdinler said.
To date, McConnell’s efforts have raised half a million dollars, all in hopes that someone else won’t lose a loved one to the disease.
“The cure is out there… if our small role is to raise money for that, then we are all in,” McConnell said.