New ALS clinic to open in fall, find answers for disease

When Lou Gehrig died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1941, the debilitating disease took on his name.

Now, an article in the New York Times suggests that the Yankee hitter’s death was not a result of the disease – a claim Clifton Gooch, chair of the USF Department of Neurology, said will not interfere with the opening of the new USF ALS center this fall.

“I strongly believe that based on all of the evidence, and there is a lot of it, that Lou Gehrig had ALS,” Gooch said. “To say that concussions are the major cause of ALS, or to say that Lou Gehrig really didn’t have ALS because he had a couple of concussions, is not supported by the data and the literature that we have.”

To continue building upon that data, Gooch, alongside several other faculty members, will be spearheading a “multidisciplinary” clinic where patients can be seen by multiple specialists and take part in experimental treatment methods.

“As opposed to just going to one doctor for a problem – and he may give you three or five or 10 appointments to go see other doctors and get everything done – the clinic will bring the ALS patients into an environment where there is a team of health care providers there so, with a single visit, they can get many things taken care of at once,” Gooch said.

The clinic, which will be the first of it’s kind in the Tampa area, will be located in the Carol and Frank Morsani Center for Advanced Healthcare and has been designed for easy accessibility – a feature head nurse Sharon Usher said will attract patients regardless of speculation about the disease.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t identify exactly what Lou Gehrig had, as he was cremated,” she said. “But I don’t think that will affect us or change how we go about running the clinic.”

The article stated that some cases of ALS could really be cases of “concussions and other brain trauma” – something Gehrig has a “well-documented history of” on the baseball field. Sufferers of ALS experience a loss of muscle use, causing symptoms like the slurring of speech and difficulty breathing. Gooch said these side effects could often be misdiagnosed as trauma of the spine or arthritis.

He said there are “hundreds of things that can mimic ALS,” including major bodily trauma and strokes.

“When we see patients who come to us with a diagnosis of ALS from the outside, the very first thing we have to do is to make absolutely sure that it’s really ALS because sometimes it can be something else,” Gooch said. “We also see patients with ALS who have been misdiagnosed with other things.”

The new clinic will operate in partnership with the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, which focuses on regenerating nerve cells through methods like non-embryonic stem cells, to create new treatments for the disease. All patients will be entered into a database at the clinic where doctors and specialists in various fields can tailor treatments and select the best candidates for trials.

Students from all related disciplines will also be encouraged to work at the clinic, Usher said.

“I envision the clinic including volunteers and students,” she said. “I’m hoping that the physical therapy students will be able to rotate through the clinic as well as speech therapy students, medical students … and I’m also hoping nursing students will be able to as well to help give them an idea about what a multidisciplinary clinic does.”

Usher said a grand opening for the clinic, which was funded through partnerships and individual donors, will be held in October or November.