I had an idea of what to expect when I pulled up to the Courtyard Marriott Saturday shortly after 5 p.m. Dale said she would meet me in the lounge. She said there's a Starbucks, but it would be closed, however, we could find a place in which to speak.
I had an idea of what to expect when I pulled up to the Courtyard Marriott Saturday shortly after 5 p.m.
Dale said she would meet me in the lounge. She said there’s a Starbucks, but it would be closed, however, we could find a place in which to speak.
“I’ll be the one in the wheelchair, you won’t miss me,” she said and then added with a laugh, “unless there are others.”
In her email, Dale Ann Nicholson said that this could be her last visit to Rhode Island and that she would be leaving Wednesday. And as more of an afterthought, she added that she has ALS.
I was prepared for a tale of symptoms and doctor visits and tests leading up to the diagnosis. Over the years I’ve met and interviewed several people with ALS and to this day remember vividly the series written by Brian Dickinson, chair of the Providence Journal editorial department, as he described his loss of motor functions, his thoughts and the support he received from his wife, sons and friends as he declined. I never talked with Brian. His columns told his story.
There were others suffering with this fatal disease whose homes I visited or I met at the ALS 5K once held at Confreda fields in Warwick. ALS victims participated in the fundraising event. Some, with the help of family and friends, were wheeled around the walk that circles the fields or simply watched from the staging area.
Dale was right. I spotted her immediately. She waved from her wheelchair, her daughter Sandi Wilson standing beside her. The hotel lobby was a picture of confusion. As many as a dozen young girls were running around as a hopeless group of parents, and I surmised some coaches, tried to bring order to the chaos. Pizza was on the way. There were drinks and nibbles for the moment.
Sandi pointed to a couch and a couple of chairs around a coffee table, seemingly a quiet place in the storm.
“I’m still getting used to this chair, it’s amazing,” declared Dale maneuvering a joystick beside a panel with a series of green flashing lights. Sandi wanted to get a photo of the two of us.
“Wait,” urged Dale, “I can get to the right height.”
Her seat started to rise. A couple of the green bars flashed red, warning her to adjust the angle of her ascent or risk capsizing.
“I’m still getting the hang of it,” Dale said. She later explained the ordeal of getting Medicare to pay for the motorized wheelchair and how she wouldn’t get another for 10 years, if she makes it that long.
Sandi took a few photos on her phone and retreated to their room upstairs. Dale descended and we moved as far away from screaming girls – Dale concluded they were a visiting field hockey team as she had seen them earlier with sticks.
I got out my pad. I was ready to hear her story.
I got some of the basics before being lost in a tangle of marriages and, as I quickly learned, Dale’s passion to build connections and expand the opportunities and education of foreign students through matching them with hosts in this country.
Dale grew up on Parade Road not far from Strawberry Field Road in Warwick, attended Lippitt School, Gorton Junior High and was one of 600 to graduate from Veterans Memorial High School when the school was on double sessions in the ’70s. While in school she held down a 40-hour a week job in a Cranston coffee and donut shop – a job she quit after being reprimanded for throwing out a donut she had dropped on the floor. When she was interviewed for a job at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 2 across from the Rhode Island Mall, she inquired, “What do I do if I drop a donut on the floor?”
“What would you do?” she recalled being asked. She said she would throw it out. She got the job and remembers it fondly. Dale married a few months after graduation and moved to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Her husband was deployed to Vietnam. He did three tours.
I thought I was getting the story, but the thread snapped when I asked if she had had any additional education. She told me she had earned a medical assistant degree from Sawyer School, graduating with honors. She imagined she would easily find a job, but that wasn’t the case. She concluded she was being discriminated against because she had a 2-year old child. She left that detail off her application for a job with a Central Falls doctor and got the post. Several weeks later, guilt overcame her and she told the doctor. He scolded her for failing to complete the application, but she had proven herself.
But how had she happened to get back to Rhode Island? And then the bit about living in Baker outside Pensacola, a divorce and returning to Warwick to care for her mother until she died in 2012; buying a 23-foot RV and driving to Riverside, California. Finally, I asked, how many times have you been married?
“Three times,” she said, “divorced in 1993. That’s it, I’m done.”
And still we hadn’t gotten to “the story” Dale wanted to tell and why she is here from Midland, Texas, where she is now living with Sandi and her family and why she plans to visit Seattle and other cities – maybe even travel to Europe.
The genesis goes back to her son, Jason, who was in school when Dale lived in Baker. Dale asked how he would like having a brother. She assured him she wasn’t pregnant, but was thinking of hosting a Danish student. It was so rewarding that Dale started working for the placement service, believing others should share in the mutually beneficial experience. In 2006, she left that program and went to work for Northwest Student Exchange, where she is the regional manager today.
The stories of students she and others hosted kept coming and how she has traveled to Europe and South America to reconnect with them and their families. Dale was animated and excited. This was her extended family she was talking about.
I wondered about her diagnosis. How had that come down? She reluctantly shifted gears. She developed drop foot where the toes curled up, making it difficult to walk. She saw multiple doctors and underwent procedures including back surgery. Following a fall that shattered foot bones (she now has a metal plate in the bottom of her right foot), one of her physicians thought the issue could be neurological and wanted to do an EMG. That had to wait several months because of her foot. Eventually she saw a neurologist and was sent to Houston for the EMG and a series of tests where she was poked with needles. He suspected a motor neuron disease and referred her to her doctor. Having worked as a medical assistant, Dale could read between the lines. Her doctor would be the one to give her the bad news. She learned it was ALS this April 2.
“So, I have ALS. I pick up and go from there,” she said.
Through the ALS Society, she has connected with an ALS team in Dallas that has her on a regime that includes diet, medication and physical therapy. She has stopped some medication, “not wanting to be all doped up.” Also, she’s decided she doesn’t want to be placed on life support if it comes to that.
Since she informed “her” students and friends of her condition on Facebook, she’s been bombarded by cards, calls and emails. Over two days last week she had more than 20 visitors, many traveling hours to visit her. Jeanne Muto Kyle of Warwick, a longtime friend, arranged for a van so she could get around. She aims to have similar reunions when she travels to Seattle.
Might this be the last time for her to see them? She can’t answer that. She focuses on the present and her job. She continues to pair foreign students with families in this country.
For the record, Dale gave birth to three children, has seven grandchildren and three great grandsons, but that’s only some of the family. In addition to stepchildren, she is the mother to scores of students.
“They really touched my life. I have all these connections.”
As a mother to many, she wants others to share the feeling.
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