Karen Carlsen has never been one to give up easily.
At 17 she wanted to see the world, so she left her Wisconsin home to join the Navy.
Working first as an aviation electronics technician, she traveled to South America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Along the way she earned her black belt in karate, played golf and hiked.
After she retired, she earned a business degree from the University of Oklahoma and took a job with Boeing in Oklahoma City.
In October of 2010, Carlsen started noticing her speech had begun to slur. At first she blamed it on dental work, job stress and allergies. But as it became progressively worse, she realized the cause might be more serious. In July of 2011, she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
“When my doctor told me, ‘you probably have ALS,’ a lifetime of memories and dreams came to a screeching halt,” said Carlsen, who lives in Oklahoma City. “I mean, what do you do with a diagnosis like that?”
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes the voluntary muscles to atrophy. There is no known cure and treatment options are limited. Although some people live with it 20 or more years, the average lifespan after diagnosis is three to five years.
The diagnosis came weeks before her 50th birthday. She had always planned to live to be 100 — it seemed like a nice round number with plenty of room for living. Suddenly, she would be lucky to reach 60.
Faced with such a realization, it would have been easy to develop a bleak outlook. Instead, she focused on what was important: her faith, her friends, and her church, Southern Hills Baptist, where she helps teach Sunday school.
Carlsen also has a new goal: to raise awareness for ALS.
“I imagine that most PALS, people with ALS, don’t really know a lot about it when they’re first diagnosed,” Carlsen said. “I help support the ALS Association by attending their annual Public Policy and Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. It is their mission, their vision, and their passion to end ALS.”
Carlsen is working on a series of fundraisers. The first, a three-mile run, will take place at 9:15 a.m. Saturday at Earlywine Park. Always an animal lover, Carlsen named the event Karen’s Kats Fun Run. The slogan calls on runners to “paws to think of ALS.”
The cost of registration and a Kats Fun Run T-shirt is $35 for adults and $10 for children. All proceeds will go to the ALS Therapy Development Institute in Massachusetts, the world’s largest nonprofit dedicated to researching causes and treatments for ALS.
“I know a cure probably will not happen in time for me,” said Carlsen. “But if I can make one bit of difference for the next person, then all my effort will be worth it.”
Carlsen also organized a May 31 golf tournament with early registration available at golf.als.net. She is hoping to hold a benefit dinner later this year.
Even though Carlsen has not let the disease keep her down, life has changed. ALS atrophied the muscles in her throat and she can no longer talk, so she uses an iPad to speak for her.
With Easter Sunday approaching, Carlsen reflects on her life with ALS. The themes of rebirth and healing resonate more with her now than ever.
“Hope was the hardest lesson to learn,” she said. “My faith probably won’t heal me, but it gives me hope enough to know this isn’t home for me. This is just the place and path God has for me to walk.”