Former Ridgefield St. Mary's teacher maintains her faith as she battles ALS: 'I count my blessings'

Michael Londrigan of Ridgefield advised his neighbor Kathy Backus to seek a neuromuscular specialist when she began experiencing ALS symptoms in 2021. Londrigan was diagnosed with ALS in October of 2018 while Backus was diagnosed with ALS in November of 2021.

Michael Londrigan of Ridgefield advised his neighbor Kathy Backus to seek a neuromuscular specialist when she began experiencing ALS symptoms in 2021. Londrigan was diagnosed with ALS in October of 2018 while Backus was diagnosed with ALS in November of 2021.

Kaitlin Lyle

RIDGEFIELD — Though she knows what’s at stake and what her future might entail, town resident Kathy Backus has held tight to her faith to navigate her life with a rare motor neuron disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — or ALS.

“I cannot imagine going through this without faith, without that help that you get with your faith,” said Backus, who is 64 and and taught religion at St. Mary School in Ridgefield for 21 years.

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The main symptom of the condition is muscle weakness. 

Before her diagnosis, Backus said she led a very full and active life. She left St Mary School in June of 2021. She described herself as a convert to Catholicism and said teaching religion was a dream come true.

As far as when she started noticing something was awry, Backus said she thought what was happening to her had to do with her arthritis. It was when she couldn’t lift a coffee mug into the microwave above her stove that Backus said she realized the issue had to do with upper body strength, not arthritis. She said she was advised by her doctor to see a neurologist after she tripped on the curb at Stop & Shop and fell.

Backus said her neighbor Michael Londrigan, who also has ALS, recommended she see a neuromuscular specialist, and she made an appointment with a specialist in New Britain. 

“Most people have the quiet journey to diagnosis… A lot of people have all kinds of tests and doctors and just run around trying to find out what’s wrong,” Backus said, “so I was fortunate I didn’t have all that.”

She said the specialist she met last October knew what was happening and encouraged her to prepare herself for the diagnosis. Backus was diagnosed with ALS at her electromyography appointment on Nov. 9, 2021.

Backus said the diagnosis was a surprise to her but after a couple hard months, she “got better with it,” with help from her faith.

“My faith is very important to me,” Backus said, “and I pray every day for courage, acceptance and surrender.”

Adapting 

Backus said she has measurable decline every month. She can no longer cook, drive, shower or dress herself, and she’s about to lose full use of her left arm. While she can still walk around her home, she also has a wheelchair, a travel wheelchair and home help aides that visit her every morning and afternoon. 

Though she no longer teaches at St. Mary School, Backus attends daily Mass and is still active in the St. Mary parish.
 
Londrigan, 68, said he was a lifelong runner before his diagnosis and he started noticing changes in his running behavior in the summer of 2017. He said he thought it was Lyme disease, and as his primary care practitioner had retired, Londrigan said his new doctor advised him to see a rheumatologist, an endocrinologist and a neurologist – none of whom were certain of Londrigan’s diagnosis.

Londrigan was diagnosed with ALS in October of 2018, though he said there’s still some question as to whether he has ALS, a variant of ALS or a condition called Multifocal Motor Neuropathy. He said his condition has been relegated to his lower legs, and he now uses a walker and a power chair to get around.

Though he left his position of vice president of LIM College in New York City in the fall of 2019, Londrigan said a new position was created for him as an online faculty member and advisor to the Provost. He was recently appointed to the Ridgefield Commission for Accessibility, whose role is to promote accessibility in town.

As for his life after his diagnosis, Londrigan said, “Every day brings a new challenge. I would say you really adapt to how to get dressed, how to bathe, how to get around.”

Backus said she didn’t know much about ALS when she was diagnosed and while she's read about ALS and what she might lose, she said she tries to stay in the present.

“It’s kind of crazy that in today’s day and age, we have a disease that there’s absolutely nothing they can do for,” she said.

“It’s a fascinating disease because it affects everybody in such a different way,” Londrigan said. “You could be here for six months or 20 years, and that’s the interesting part. The more people I meet and the more I share experiences… it is really a disease that I think is becoming more prevalent.”

Londrigan added, “It’s easy to roll up in a ball and really not want to go forward, but when I look at other people and other diseases… in certain instances, I count my blessings. I deal with the hand that God dealt me.”