ALS victim's last request: 'I want to have LeBron James come and visit me'

Zoe Greszler • Nov 20, 2016 at 9:50 PM

Bruce Barnard has endured a lot of pain during his 69 years of life, including having titanium and steel plates and bolts put in his lower back, affecting his sciatic nerve.

But for this Willard resident, the worst ordeal began Jan. 4, 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

This incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It breaks down muscles slowly, impacting the way a person moves, until it ultimately reaches a muscle vital for sustaining life, killing its victim.

He later learned he also has non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body's immune system.

Because his ALS and cancer are in the advanced stages, Barnard has been given only weeks to a few months to live.

He plans to use that time pursuing what he is calling his “death wish” — a meeting with Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James. Barnard wants to convince James to help start an ALS research fundraising effort that would involve Cleveland’s three major sports teams.

“It affects everyone. Everyone I’ve talked to knows someone or has someone in the family that has Lou Gehrig’s disease,” said Barnard, who is living at the Willows in Willard and receiving Stein Hospice care. “I want to eradicate this so others won’t have to go thorough this terrible disease.

“It’s the worst one you can possibly have,” he added. “It’s cruel how you die. The last muscle to go is your diaphragm and then you suffocate and die. I do not want to be kept alive on a feeding tube or a ventilator unless my kids and family want to come in and see me one last time.

“And then they’ll pull the plug.”

Barnard, a usually strong, matter-of-fact man, began to cry at this point during the interview. “I don’t want them to see me suffocate and die,” he said. “I just want to eradicate this terrible disease so others won’t have to go through it. It’s the worst disease you can possibly have. Cancer is bad enough. I don’t know which one will kill me fist.”

He said he would “rather have a brain aneurysm. “I’d be gone quick and wouldn’t feel any pain with a brain aneurysm.”

Barnard said he contemplated suicide but eventually let go of that thought, choosing instead to focus on his last mission.

“I just want to have LeBron James come and visit me as my death wish,” he said.

For Barnard’s plan, the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians each would have yearly fundraising efforts for ALS research. The team that raises the most money would receive a trophy. If one of the other two teams comes out on top the next year, then the trophy would be passed on to that team.

“This would be the Lou Gehrig’s trophy for the owner to have to display in his hall of trophies to have the bragging rights and to make themselves feel pretty good, knowing they helped raise the most money for Lou Gehrig’s disease research.”

While Barnard doesn’t have the trophy yet, he has ideas about how teams could raise money.

Among his suggestions are the sale of autographed merchandise and raffles for the right to throw the first pitch at an Indians game or take a half-court shot — and win a car if it goes in — at a Cavs game.

Barnard said James is the perfect person to organize this.

“He’s got a heart of gold. If he knew what I wanted to do, he’d be right here, standing there talking to me right now,” Barnard said. “But it’s so hard to get a hold of him. I want to have LeBron’s James help me with my death wish.”

On Friday, Barnard heard from the Dream Foundation, which grants wishes to adults battling terminal illnesses, and the ALS Association. The organizations said they could get Cavs tickets for him, his family and two nurses and try to arrange a meeting with James — though there were no promises the latter will happen.

Barnard also wants to reach out to Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer to get his team’s support in the trophy and fundraising efforts.

“I pray every night that if I get this (Lou Gehrig’s trophy) done, I can die peacefully,” he said.

Barnard said he’s not losing hope, though, no matter how it works out. He said if James cannot meet with him, he might try to contact Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee who recently lost her bid for the White House.

He said he hopes his service to the country will play in his favor. He served in the Army for three years, then served as a U.S. diplomat under President Richard Nixon. At the age of 22, he was one of the youngest to get such a position, Barnard said.

"If you tell her everything, she just might just come,” Barnard said.

Barnard also served as a mail carrier in Norwalk, where his wife still lives.

“If they could just find a way to eradicate this terrible disease,” he said. “I think that’s why God has let me live a few more weeks so I can get this done. I want no one to have to go through this anymore. I just wish I could have at least 10 more years so I can see my grandkids grow up.”

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