‘I’ve lived a

New Zealand has the world’s high­est rates of mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease – but a former gym­nast says she’s come to ac­cept the deadly con­di­tion. By Matt Shand.

Sunday News - - FRONT PAGE -

KIRSTY Gerlach knows mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease will claim her life soon –but she’s still thank­ful.

‘‘It is an in­trigu­ing con­cept, my life now, be­cause it is all pointed to an end,’’ the 59-yearold says in soft laboured speech. ‘‘I have lived a re­ally full life, full of beauty and rich­ness and joy. No re­grets.’’

The former Com­mon­wealth Games medal-win­ning gym­nast is one of 151 New Zealan­ders who die an­nu­ally due to mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease. It’s a fig­ure that a new study from the Univer­sity of Auck­land – analysing data from 2264 who died from the dis­ease – puts us at the top of world rank­ings.

New Zealand’s MND­mor­tal­ity rate is as high as 2.8 deaths per 100,000, com­pared to 1.67 in­ter­na­tion­ally.

‘‘We know that New Zealand doesn’t have high­erMND mor­tal­ity rates just due to liv­ing longer, or hav­ing a greater pro­por­tion of older peo­ple in our pop­u­la­tion. It’s some­thing other than just an age ef­fect,’’ Dr Emma Scot­ter, head of the Mo­tor Neu­ron Dis­ease Re­search Lab at the univer­sity, said.

A study in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions pre­dicts the num­ber will only in­crease and ef­forts are be­ing made to un­der­stand the cause of the ill­ness as well as cre­ate treat­ments.

The only treat­ment Gerlach has is med­i­ca­tion to de­lay the on­set of symp­toms. She was only given months to live in Septem­ber 2017 af­ter her di­ag­no­sis.

As her body de­te­ri­o­rates Gerlach says she takes so­lace in re­mem­ber­ing her life well-lived: from her gym­nas­tics to her au­di­ol­ogy busi­ness and very ac­tive church life.

As she talks, hus­band Steve Gerlach, a former Olympic-level gym­nas­tics coach, is close by.

They met in his role as a coach. She was a mem­ber of a bronze medal win­ning team at the 1978 Com­mon­wealth Games and qual­i­fied for the 1976 Olympics although there were not enough in­ter­na­tional qual­i­fiers for New Zealand to send a team.

That was back when she had full con­trol of her body. Be­fore mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease changed all that. Now she can­not walk or talk for long. When she be­comes up­set, her throat closes. But speak­ing about her death, she is clear, calm and flu­ent.

Walk­ing and talk­ing too long tires her out and she has to take reg­u­lar breaks through­out the day.

Her daugh­ter in­sisted they get match­ing tat­toos. ‘Beloved,’ they say in cur­sive writ­ing, framed with for­get-me-nots. Her daugh­ter will carry the tat­too with her long af­ter her mother has gone.

‘‘I’m grate­ful I can pre­pare. Most peo­ple don’t have that op­por­tu­nity,’’ Gerlach says.

‘ I’m grate­ful I can pre­pare. Most peo­ple don’t have that op­por­tu­nity.’ KIRSTY GERLACH

Global Mo­tor Neu­rone Aware­ness Week is June 18 – 24 mnd.org.nz TOM LEE / STUFF

Kirsty Gerlach shows off a photo of her­self as a young, world-class gym­nast.

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