When I married at the tender age of 24, my mom had told me that the things that will shake your foundation will come at the least likely of times. Ours happened on a random Tuesday morning when the sun is shining and the world was still looking bright. That’s exactly how I remember the day that I got the phone call from my husband relaying the news of his latest doctor’s visit. On this perfectly great Tuesday, I was in the car listening to a Laurie Berkner CD, driving our three year old to an art class. Nothing strange, just Don calling, much like clockwork, at 11:30 sharp. The funny thing is, that when he called, he said, “I have good news. I have Parkinson’s Disease.” Literally, I stopped in my tracks, and asked, “this is good news?”, and he responded, “Yes, Dr. Hayes said there will be a cure in our lifetime.” And, just like that, life resumed. He went back to work as a college football coach at Boston College, and I went about my day. But, despite the “good news”, questions began to form. Within a few hours, panic set in. What did this mean? How would we cope? We have a three year old and are trying desperately for another child to complete our brood…
We reconvened at home that evening. Both of us were separately searching the internet for answers, and both of us were at a loss for words. Which, is not unlike Don and his quiet reflective nature but definitely unlike me who feels compelled to be heard. I’m sure that is a product of being raised in a family of eleven siblings. Phone calls to were then made… disbelief ensued… second opinions were urged…. and later a lengthy denial persisted. Never in motion was a written plan of attack ever drafted, but in the quiet of our own home, we often discussed the strategy of how we would handle this information.
Unfortunately, in the athletic world there are no signs of weakness allowed (that are actually made known out loud); that’s the law of the jungle. The weak are discarded. Only the strong survive. So, after much thought and consultation, our plan was that we would tell immediate family only, and Don’s boss, head coach, former marine, and well respected friend, Tom O’Brien. Though I wasn’t there the day this discussion happened, Don has told me that it was short and sweet and no time for concern.
Shortly after the diagnosis, Don’s commitments with Coach O’Brien brought us to Raleigh, North Carolina. We would be soon be discovering a new environment, great challenges professionally, and a very odd beginning to new friendships. You see, it’s not often that you have to explain why your husband may speak softly, freeze in a chair, or not be able to move his left hand to someone that you’ve never met. Though I don’t believe that you should feel the need to explain, we were now in the South where everyone knows everybody’s business. And as a result, we secluded ourselves and became a much stronger family unit. Despite the change in lifestyle, we were happy, and had a new daughter in the mix.
In the midst of a relentless coaching battle to improve a new program at NC State, Don started to show outward signs of his disease. The hours of a coach are grueling, and I truly mean giving 24 hours of one’s self to not only to better the program, but, more importantly, to the development of its young men. But this was his passion, and he was becoming frustrated by the lack of movement his body was beginning to trap him in. I recall the night he came home after a game, and I’m not sure if they won or loss, but I’m SURE he can recall that fact. I was sitting at my computer and he said to my back, “…hard day today”. I replied something sarcastic, like “what was your offensive line thinking”, or “how many sacks were given up?” He said, “no…hard day today”. I knew better than to turn around. In the 3 ½ years since he was diagnosed, we had never discussed his difficult days with Parkinson’s because neither of us would actually give in. I just asked what happened. He said, “I was stuck, stuck in the locker room, and I couldn’t button my shirt.” I remained silent. He told me that Russell Wilson had helped him. Then very slowly and he told me in defeat that a player had to help him get dressed so that he could catch the team plane. I stood up, not addressing the difficulty, and said, “That’s just the kind of person Russell is, Don”. I knew that he was feeling a lack of control, a bit of embarrassment and humility, so to soften the blow, I said, “If anyone understood, it was Russell.”
This conversation churned over and over in my mind. I felt desperate to help him and his situation. How could I ease the burden of the simple task of getting dressed? I spent hours online searching for a solution – surely there were options in menswear. I saw Velcro dress shirts and had them FedEx’d in time for his next trip. Upon receiving them, I was disappointed by their quality. I noticed how thin they were and knew that they would only last a few dry cleanings. I also saw he would still need his dexterity to line it up properly. Then the wheels started spinning, and I had an epiphany – Magnets – why not put magnets on the inside – they would line up independently and I could just convert the existing shirts that he already had. But, after tearing one apart I saw this wasn’t a possibility, the magnets slipped and needed to be sewn into a system. Back to the drawing board, but I knew that I was on the right track. I made a phone calls. I sketched my ideas, and I decided to order a few prototypes. Once the idea felt realistic, I told a few friends. It felt encouraging, and I was so optimistic, I actually flew down to Florida to present the idea to Shark Tank ready to jump in with both feet.
After being chosen as a finalist, I knew that I had a viable idea. I was asked to put together a video to bring to the taping. I shared this with a few friends, and within weeks, I had an investor (and dropped out of Shark Tank). And, long story short, that’s where we are today, finally launching MagnaReady, a magnetically infused dress shirt and the concept of stress free shirting. Obviously aimed at people with limited mobility (and not just the 5 million Parkinson’s sufferers but stroke victims, arthritis sufferers, wounded warriors, etc.), this product could be great for a number of other people (including nursing moms). It is truly our hope that until there is a cure, we can help people who struggle with their daily tasks live a little simpler and help restore a little dignity to their daily routine. After all, getting dressed shouldn’t be a stressful task – Living with a disability is hard enough…