Pressing on after a disability
David Diehl was a 35-year-old rancher tending to his crops and cattle in 1991 when a virus attacked his spinal cord. The result, an autoimmune condition known as transverse myelitis, paralyzed him, making him a T11 paraplegic.
Diehl and his wife, Arlene, continued to ranch with Diehl’s dad and brother near East Helena, Montana. They were beginning to adjust to this new reality when David was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1998. “The doctor told me that 20% of people with transverse myelitis later develop MS,” Arlene says.
At about the same time, she noticed her husband’s inappropriate outbursts and remembered the same unpredictable laughing and crying in her own father, who had MS. “His emotional outbursts didn’t match what was going on,” Arlene says.
In 2000, Great Falls neurologist Dennis Dietrich pinpointed a debilitating condition known as pseudobulbar affect (PBA). It occurs in 2 million individuals affected by MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, stroke, and traumatic brain injury.
“Antidepressants didn’t control it,” Arlene says. Diehl took part in a 2008 study, and he now takes an FDA-approved medication that reduces the severity and frequency. He says the public perception of his inappropriate outbursts often was worse than being in a wheelchair.
Family is there
For several years, Diehl operated the combine and tractor, thanks to a lift his brother built. “I loved farming, but I turned it over a few years ago to our son, Nick,” he says. The Diehls grow dryland and irrigated spring wheat, barley and alfalfa hay on 7,000 acres. They also have a 250-head Black Angus herd.