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Doing Good: David Diehl

Part of our series on farmers and others in agriculture who give ’til it helps: A Montana farmer overcame huge obstacles and now helps others do the same.

Arlene and David Diehl

Arlene and David Diehl

When an autoimmune disease attacked his spinal cord in 1991, it left David Diehl a paraplegic. Still, he managed to continue farming on what is now 7,000 acres, doing tasks such as operating equipment using leg braces and hand controls. Even after he was stricken with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1998, he adapted. While he did decide to stop running the combine and tractors when he went blind in his left eye two years later, even that malady was less of a concern than another perplexing condition that affected this East Helena, Montana, farmer.

Called pseudobulbar affect (PBA), the condition sometimes occurs in patients with otherwise unrelated neurological conditions, such as MS, Alzheimer’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Characterized by involuntary, sudden and frequent outbursts of crying or laughing, these PBA episodes often occur out of proportion or contrary to the person’s current emotional state.

“I had trouble managing my unpredictable emotional outbursts caused by PBA,” says David. “Laughing when I didn’t think something was funny, or crying when nothing was sad, disrupted our everyday life.”

For instance, David tells a story about laughing uncontrollably at a funeral when his emotions were calling for quite the opposite. There have been other incidents, too, which, says David, frustrated and embarrassed him.

“Often he has said it bothers him that he’s a paraplegic,” explains his wife, Arlene, who says she saw indications of PBA in her father who also had MS and David’s brother who had ALS. “But more than that, it bothered him that he had unpredictable emotional outbursts which prevented him from doing what he wanted to do.”

Now, however, there is treatment available for PBA in the U.S., which affects nearly 2 million U.S. citizens. “We’ve been really involved with our church doing a ministry called Faith Kidz,” continues Arlene. “Before this new treatment it became a problem for [David] to do that work because … David might do something like laugh way longer than was appropriate. You can imagine that keeping 130 kids focused is hard enough.”

Now, David’s PBA symptoms are largely under control, allowing Arlene and him to do those things that are truly important to them, such as Faith Kidz. “Yes, we’re farmers, but we see it this way:  We farm so we get to do this kind of outreach.”

To learn more about PBA, visit: pbainfo.org.

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