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Oklahoma City woman with Lou Gehrig's Disease has learned hope

Karen Carlsen organizes fundraisers to benefit the search for a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
BY SARAH LOBBAN, For The Oklahoman Published: April 18, 2014

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.

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