Friday, June 21, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle
Pleasant Hill -- Fighting MS is guy thing for one man
Bob Valkevich is the kind of guy who sandpapers sentimentality, removing the maudlin edges to leave just the smooth, factual narrative of his life. He doesn't get all weepy. You won't see him taking in the matinee of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." Definitely not that kind of guy.
Once, in the mid-1980s, he was a high-powered, highly stressed San Francisco trial lawyer with a wife and three young children. Now, at 52, Valkevich uses a wheelchair or walker to get around, forced by health to retire from his lucrative law practice, eight years divorced and living alone in a Pleasant Hill subdivision.
This is what multiple sclerosis can do to a body, a mind, a life.
So why is this man smiling?
Why is the tanned, trimmed, blond-locked Valkevich sipping coffee in the shade of his backyard and saying he's never felt better, never had his life and priorities so focused, never been in as good of shape since he was an athletic teen thinking himself invincible?
Because, well, let Bob tell it in his wry way.
"Because I'm like Lou Gehrig," he says. "I'm the luckiest man . . . yadda, yadda, yadda."
He laughs, then grabs his right thigh with both hands and crosses that leg over his left with great difficulty.
"I don't want to get all sappy here, but when one door closes, three more open," he says. "Some of the things you think are big tragedies are really gifts. Having MS is one of the great doors that opened for me. A lot of people are stuck in a hole of depression and don't realize that."
Valkevich was in that hole once, even was hospitalized for depression once, in the mid-'90s. But now he is on the road in his snazzy titanium racing wheelchair and taking part in this year's 3-day, 50-mile MS Challenge Walk, a fund-raising event for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society that begins this morning in Pleasanton and ends Sunday afternoon at Crissy Field in San Francisco.
Although Valkevich has been training every day for a year - he's a familiar presence rolling through the undulating trail at the Lafayette reservoir - he matter-of-factly says he's not sure he can make the trip. There are some brutal hills to conquer, especially in the 20-mile Day 1 crossing Castro Valley to Hayward.
Do not count him out, though. Valkevich has stared down bigger hills than this and pulled himself out of that "hole of self-pity" after being diagnosed in 1990 with this chronic disease of the central nervous system. The MS Society thinks so much of Valkevich's efforts that it named him the organization's ambassador for the event, which is expected to raise $1 million for the Northern California chapter.
Valkevich's life is a drama divided into three acts: before MS; denial and then grudging acceptance of MS; and his current, in-the-middle-of-MS "no barriers" period.
In the '80s, Valkevich was a hard-working litigator who built his own practice in San Francisco's Financial District specializing in family and construction cases. His only physical problem then was with his weight, since he was too busy with his practice and his young family to exercise regularly.
"One day, I'm out for a run and right in the middle of it, I lost most of my sight in my right eye," he says. "Over the course of a few weeks, I was blind in the eye. Eye doctors tested me for everything and ruled out MS. I was happy to hear that. I didn't know much about MS, but I knew it involved being a cripple."
Two months later, 80 percent of his vision returned to his right eye. Valkevich didn't ask why. "I was just grateful it came back and chose to look forward," he says. "But over the next few years I began to notice some other things."
Things such as blurry vision during his daily runs, an occasional limp at the end of the day, fatigue. Valkevich has an old video of himself mowing the lawn with a distinct limp, his 1-year-old trailing behind him with a toy mower.
He simply chose to ignore the signs. He was a guy. He would push through it.
In the summer of 1990, shortly after turning 40, Valkevich could no longer ignore his symptoms. He and his young family were hiking with another couple at Briones Regional Park in the East Bay when Valkevich's legs buckled halfway up a hill.
"They totally froze up," he says. "This was different. The scary part was, it didn't go away. I told my wife at the time to keep going, that I'd rest and be OK and catch up. But it was a struggle just to get the half-mile back to the car. I grabbed a big stick and pulled myself along."
Diagnosis: "Chronic progressive MS," he says, "a pretty good case of it."
Over the next five years, Valkevich's world collapsed. He went from using a cane to two canes, to a walker to a wheelchair. The assault on his central nervous system also affected Valkevich's cognitive ability, which eventually forced him to retire from his practice and collect disability because "people don't want to hire a broken lawyer."
Valkevich had always derived identity from being a hard- charging attorney, and he was just entering his mid-40s, peak earning years. With that gone, "I was devastated." Depression descended, partly because "my MS made the electrical systems in my brain misfire" and partly because his life had been drastically altered. He was divorced in 1994, stopped practicing law altogether in 1996 and had lost the will to live.
"Nobody's ever accused me of being a quitter, but that was the one point in my life I quit," he says. "But when I came out the hospital (in 1997), I had a new outlook. For the first time, I wanted to live to an old age."
Life is not cut and dried enough to present Valkevich with clearly demarcated turning points. But he admits the course of his life changed with one decision.
"I had to decide whether to get a battery operated or a manual wheelchair," he says. "It's a vanity thing. I'd seen too many people get into power chairs and get out of shape. And I knew that if I got the power chair, I'd get real lazy, real fast."
Instead, he chose biceps and triceps power, and it's made all the difference. Between free weights, yoga, swimming and traveling miles and miles in his titanium chair, Valkevich has become an aerobic animal with a strong, sculpted upper body.
When he turned 50, he trained for months to make the 2.7-mile trek around the Lafayette reservoir sans wheelchair or walker. It was one of those midlife crisis things guys do, he says. It took him five hours to walk, but he did it. The next year, he vowed to climb the 1.5-mile Vernal Falls at Yosemite with his two canes. It took him 12 hours, but he did it.
"I almost quit a few times," he said. "It sounds like a cliche, but don't focus on what you can't do."
The 50-mile MS trek is Valkevich's toughest test yet. He says he's never been in better shape, physically or emotionally. He's got joint custody of his three children (two in high school, one in middle school) and enjoys being a stay-at-home dad. His new girlfriend, Claudia, who also has MS, will drive his support van during the three-day event, and his family and friends are rooting him on.
It shouldn't matter whether Valkevich completes the arduous journey since, well, he's already come a long way.
But don't tell Valkevich that.
"I want to do it," he says, flatly.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle