ALS leads to a medical leave of absense

Packing up the office
Bruce Kramer and his wife Ev Emerson pack up his office at the University of St. Thomas.
MPR Photo/Jon Collins

Editor's note: This is part of our continuing series of stories about Bruce Kramer, the former dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas, as he copes with life after being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. You can read all the stories in the series by clicking here.

Anyone who has left a long-time job either because of downsizing or early retirement, or even if the move was planned in advance, will tell you it is a tough transition to make. This morning, Bruce Kramer of Minneapolis is making the transition from overseeing the faculty and staff as dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas to taking a medical leave of absence.

In the time since his diagnosis, Kramer has juggled the demanding schedule required of a college administrator while dealing with the demands of his illness. Morning Edition Host Cathy Wurzer spoke with him as he packed up his office for her latest report on his journey with what's commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Besides official documents there are mementos from a full life in his education profession. Kramer and his wife, Ev Emerson, pack away a glass owl figurine from Kramer's six-year stint with the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. There's a brass bell from Cairo, Egypt from when Kramer was the high school principal at Cairo-American College. And an ornate wooden box is a reminder of his time at a high school in Bangkok, Thailand.

An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Bruce Kramer: It used to be that whatever it took to get to work was worth it, and I could find the energy, I could find the recovery to keep going and enjoy the work. Now it just is amazing how much energy it takes to get ready, and I don't recover. And then I get to work and it just sort of wears me down. This is a stressful job. And I've actually enjoyed the stress. You kind of get high on the adrenaline, right? And I see you nodding. You do and you get addicted to it. But really in the last month, something stressful happens and I'm just knocked for a loop. I can't dust myself off, I can't recover from it. I can't get the fatigue out of my eyes. It just is cumulative, and that's no way to be doing this job. So, I realized that it's time. I can't do this. This is going to sound funny. It's affecting my health.

Cathy Wurzer: And you have ALS.

Kramer: And I have ALS.

Kramer (as he looks through his mementos): Lots of little doo-dads here. On a bad day, I look at them and think, overall, someone thought you were doing OK ... The nature of this work is what have you done for me lately and my, uh my effect here will fade and others will take its place. It's a great college and a great university and it will keep on whether I'm here or not.

Wurzer: What fed you professionally all this time?

Kramer: There's nothing like teaching. There really isn't. Teaching is about connecting. It's about really trying to understand the person that you're working with, the people you're working with, understand their reality. And then try to introduce to them a broader picture that allows them to see things that they might not have seen except for the fact that we had this conversation, we read this particular reading, we analyzed this particular case, we did something together and found something bigger than either one of us. That is just -- it's just the greatest high I can think of.

As he leaves his post, he's trying to put into action some of the lessons he's taught others

Kramer: "Succession is important. We have a short term plan, we have a long term plan. People have signed off on it, we're going to move ahead, and Bruce is going to go off gentle into that good night.

Wurzer: Many of us become associated with our work, and I'm wondering, as you leave, do you have thoughts about the loss of that work identity for you?

Kramer: It would be easy to focus on that. It strikes me as being superficial. Really, when I think about what I do, what I do is not really going to change. I still identify myself as a teacher, and I plan to teach what I'm experiencing until I can't. If I were asked the question I guess I'd say, 'Oh, I teach a little bit here and there.' What I have been given is the gift of opportunity to say, "If that's not who I am, who am I?' Well, I am this person, and this person has this opportunity to connect with other people, and to listen to them, to hear their stories, to tell them my story. And hopefully in the long run, find a way for it to go a little easier for them. To me that's a good life. And I'm in a good place. But it took me a while to get there.

Wurzer: Do you have a plan as to what you want to do next? When you're not the dean of the college of education, what do you want to do with the time you have left?

Kramer: I do know what I want to do and I'm worried that I'm not going to be able to do it. I'm still learning the ropes of using speech-to-text software, and I want to write. I find the writing to be really helpful. It's the one place where I feel like I have some sense of me having more of an effect on something than something having a big effect on me. At the same time, it's very difficult to write when your hands don't work, and my hands don't work and it is funny, the other part of this is that I'm realizing that there's still this musical side of me that needs some feeding. So, [I am] thinking about that. [I am] thinking about the greatest book about leadership ever written, I don't think that will happen, but I think I can try. I think it's really in writing and I think then it's in just being, just enjoying the fact that life goes on.

With that, Bruce Kramer places a cardboard box on his lap and heads for the elevator in his wheelchair, ready for the next chapter in his life.


You can read all the stories in this series by clicking here.