‘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.
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.