NASHVILLE — About five months after undergoing heart-bypass surgery in the fall of 2020, former Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick noticed something was awry with his leg.
"I developed a limp in my right leg, which is where that artery was taken out, and I just assumed that that was related," McCormick said in a Thursday phone interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
"I tried to work it out and walk it off and all that," he said. "And it just continued to persist, not necessarily get worse, but just persist."
The former lawmaker represented portions of Chattanooga from 2004-2018 and now lives in Lebanon, Tennessee.
McCormick, who once planned to run for speaker, said he later went to doctors who performed nerve conduction tests. Told it looked like general neuropathy, he went on to see neurologists in Chattanooga and then at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
The verdict was he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease after the famed early 20th century New York Yankees first baseman whose diagnosis and later death brought the disease to national attention.
"It was April 20," McCormick said, then quipped in characteristic fashion, "I remember that because that's the famous day of weed smokers all over America."
A progressive nervous system disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, ALS causes loss of voluntary muscle control, according to the Mayo Clinic and the ALS Association Tennessee Chapter. It can affect chewing, walking, breathing and talking. Nerves lose the ability to activate specific muscles, which causes the muscles to become weak and leads to paralysis.
There is no known cure.
On average, death can occur within three to five years after the onset of symptoms. Gehrig died some two years after his diagnosis. But in some cases, those with ALS can live for years. Renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, diagnosed at 21, lived to be 76.
"It started with that limp and now my right ankle is not very functional. It's hard for me to lift my body up and down, lift my body up with it, it just doesn't have strength in it," McCormick said. "So that limp has gotten a little bit worse. And that's really it right now.
McCormick said he had sought guidance from representatives of the ALS Association in Tennessee and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which is helping walk him through Veterans Administration paperwork.
A former real estate broker who now works at the Ingram Group — which provides corporate strategy, government relations, communications strategy and political consulting services — McCormick said his family has no history of ALS.
But in 1990, McCormick was a sergeant in the Tennessee National Guard and was among troops deployed to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, spending seven months in Dhahran and working as a nuclear biological chemical specialist.
"Apparently someone who served in the first Gulf War has a much greater chance of getting ALS," McCormick said.
An early 2000s study by researchers supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense found preliminary evidence that veterans who served in Desert Shield-Desert Storm were nearly twice as likely as their non-deployed counterparts to develop ALS.
A subsequent, broader study showed higher incidents of MLS among military service members generally, again making them about twice as likely to get the disease as the general public.
McCormick said he is remaining upbeat.
"There is a drug they have now that they say slows it down considerably and they'll put me on that," he said.
McCormick, 60, said he began this week telling some friends and former legislative colleagues about the diagnosis. And he wants the public to know as well.
"To tell the truth, I'd rather it be out there rather than people just whispering about it and saying, 'Oh God, he may die tomorrow,' because that's not typically how it works. It lasts a while," he said.
McCormick's wife, Kim McCormick, is a vice-chancellor with the Tennessee Board of Regents. He said he has told the couple's children.
"'I've been incredibly lucky and blessed,'" he said he told them. "'You get a bad break once in a while, but I've been pretty doggone lucky over the years. So I'm thankful.
"'We're all going to die of something,'" he said he told his children. "'I just got a hint of what I might die of. It gives me time to do some planning,' and I pointed out to them I'm 60 years old and not 30 years old."
Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, a Chattanooga Republican who has known McCormick for years, reached out to him earlier in the week.
"Gerald is a unique man," Wamp said in a Friday phone interview. "He told me that everybody ends up succumbing to something. At some point everybody has to face their own mortality, and if this is his fate, he's going to travel some and try to enjoy life a little more and try to get all else out of it that he can, but that he's accepting whatever it is. And they're just unique people."
Noting McCormick wasn't always a Republican — Democrats recruited him in 1992 to run against then-Rep. Ken Meyer, an East Ridge Republican, in a race won by Meyer — Wamp said he was one of several people who worked to persuade McCormick to become a Republican.
"And then for him to go all the way to become the majority leader in the state House of Representatives as a Republican when we first knew him as a Democrat," Wamp marveled.
"This is a challenge you would not want anyone to endure, but they have to endure it. That's just the hand that's now been dealt with the McCormick family, and we should all do all we can to help him," Wamp said.
Beth Bumgardner, the West Tennessee care coordinator for the ALS Association Tennessee Chapter, said in a telephone interview that a mutual friend from Memphis, whose husband has ALS, put her in contact with McCormick, who had grown up in Memphis.
"He's going to work on some advocacy efforts with our hired staff as well, and I sort of head those up," Bumgardner said. "I talked to him for the first time [Thursday]. He is already inspiring me with the attitude he has.
"He wants to be able to do something with this and do something good with it. And he's going to be advocating for us. I think it's just amazing, to be so early diagnosed and he's turning it right around and finding the way to make something that could be difficult a positive."
Bumgardner said the drug Radicava, which has been shown to slow the loss of physical function by 33% and has been administered intravenously for several years, recently won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in oral form.
"You can have a very good quality of life living with ALS," she said. "My attitude is, OK, we can only do so much to stop the ALS from progressing. You can try Radicava, maybe you're going to be one of those that you have a slow progression, that's fine. But we help you prepare for what obstacles you might find. And we're going to find a way to take control of the ALS."
Asked what he would like people to know about his situation, McCormick said that while there is still no cure, there will be.
"And it is not necessarily a short-term process, it can go on for many years," he said. "And that we just need to keep working on finding a final cure for it.
"And," he added, "in the meantime, live your life every day."