Stephen Piscotty's mother dies after year-long battle with ALS

Gretchen Piscotty, the mother of Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty, died Sunday after battling ALS — a sad ending to one of the more humane stories to come out of baseball in recent years, as Piscotty was traded to the A’s to be closer to his mother. She was 55 years old.

Gretchen was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, just a year ago, in May 2017. After Piscotty found out, the Cardinals gave him a leave of absence so he could fly to his hometown of Pleasanton, Calif., and regroup with his father, Mike, and his younger brothers Nick and Austin. Piscotty moved back into the family home over the offseason to help care for her, and he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he enjoyed ferrying his mother and her friends around town in an RV equipped with a special lift that accommodated Gretchen’s wheelchair.

In December, Piscotty was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Athletics. The Cardinals had intended to trade him, but dealt him to the Athletics so he could be closer to his mother, since Pleasanton is just 25 miles from Oakland. By January, the disease had progressed much faster than anyone had anticipated. The Chronicle reported that Gretchen had lost a lot of her mobility and had difficulty speaking.

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8 things to know about ALS

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The Ice Bucket Challenge has recently boomed on social media for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) awareness; as of mid-August, more than $94 million has been donated, and more than 2.4 million challenge videos have been posted on Facebook. Critics claim that people should donate the cost of bagged ice instead of dumping it, or that it’s a waste of water—or that it doesn’t do much to humanize the devastating condition, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Here are 8 eye-opening facts you should know about ALS, whether you’ve already gotten drenched or are debating to take the plunge.

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The earliest ALS symptoms are easy to overlook

Cramped, stiff muscles are one of the first subtle signs of ALS. Other early symptoms include muscle weakness in one arm or leg, twitching, slurred or nasal speech, and difficulty swallowing, depending on where the motor neuron damage first manifests in the body, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. There is no one test for an ALS diagnosis (it is based mainly on patients’ symptoms), but tests can be done to rule out other conditions. These may include electromyography (EMG), which records electrical activity in the muscles, and a nerve conduction study (NCS), which tests the nerves' ability to send a signal. Abnormalities in these test results may suggest damage to peripheral nerves or muscle disease rather than ALS.

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ALS doesn't discriminate among age groups

Although ALS most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 50 and 70 (the average age of diagnosis is 55), the disease can strike people in their 20s and 30s. Pat Quinn, the ALS patient who is credited with starting the ice bucket craze after seeing a golfer dunk himself online for a relative with the disease, is 31. ALS is 20 percent more common in men than in women, and 93 percent of patients are Caucasian, according to the ALS Association.

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Someone in America is diagnosed with ALS every 90 seconds

Each year, about 5,600 U.S. people are diagnosed with ALS, or one person about every 90 minutes. Someone also dies from ALS every 90 minutes. The disease can cost patients more than $200,000 per year.

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ALS patients' minds remain sharp

Although ALS is physically debilitating, the disease doesn’t affect senses like sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, nor does it affect a person’s mental acuity or intelligence. When patients can no longer speak or move, they can use technological advances like eye tracking, which monitors a patient’s eyeball movement and allows them to spell words that are spoken by a computer, or to play a virtual piano without needing to move any other muscles.

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There is no cure for ALS

The FDA approved the first treatment to help prolong the life of those with ALS in 1995, but there is still no cure. The treatment, Riluzole, slows the progression of ALS by blocking the release of glutamate, a compound believed to injure nerve cells. Yet medication “at best only postpones death for a few months, and does not preclude the need for supportive care and practical help,” reported a U.K. study on ALS patients. A 2013 study in the journal Annals of Neurology found a link between eating bright-colored fruits and vegetables, which are packed with antioxidants called carotenoids, and a lower risk or slower onset of ALS. Many clinical trials are currently underway to identify risk factors and more treatments that slow disease progression or target specific symptoms, but much more work—and funding—is needed. 

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Brain injuries may be a risk factor

A National Football League-funded study compared the brains of 12 deceased professional athletes (who all had experienced repeated concussions while playing) with those of 12 patients who had died from ALS, and found that abnormalities in the brains and spinal cords of the two groups mirrored each other. Researchers say that the protein aberrations found in both patients affected by brain injuries and those with neurodegenerative disease like ALS may be linked to athletic trauma. “The play of contact sports, such as boxing, football and hockey, might be associated,” the authors, led by Dr. Ann C. McKee, told the Los Angeles Times. “Whether repetitive head trauma alone provokes these neurodegenerative cascades, or only in association with certain genetic constellations remains to be determined.” Other studies have found an 11-fold increased risk of ALS among Italian soccer players who had multiple head injuries and a greater ALS risk among people who have served in the military, CNN reported.

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ALS is fatal

ALS causes the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to degenerate. As a result, patients’ nervous systems progressively lose function until they experience life-threatening infection, heart attack or heart failure, blood clots, or breathing problems. Most patients die within three to five years of diagnosis. About 20 percent of ALS patients live five years or more, and up to 10 percent live for more than 10 years, according to data collected by the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins. Visit alsa.org to learn more about symptoms, research, and donating.

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Piscotty understood that he didn’t have a lot of time left with his mother, and told ESPN that he was trying to share as many moments with her as possible.

“We usually end [the day] playing the guitar with ‘Amazing Grace,'” Stephen Piscotty told ESPN about taking care of his mother. It was a song she used to play for him on a music box as a child. “It’s definitely emotional. Playing it is kind of a full-circle aspect going on there. It gives me some little bit of peace, and I hope it does the same for her.

“It’s important to spend time with her because we’re running out of it, and we’re just trying to cherish every moment.”

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in December that he took Piscotty’s situation with his ailing mother into consideration when deciding among trade offers, which is why he ended up close to home with the Athletics. And because of that, Piscotty was able to spend more time with his mother before she died.

Piscotty and the Oakland A’s Community Fund has set up a YouCaring fund in Gretchen’s memory. The donations will go toward ALS research and the A’s will match up to $50,000.

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at lizroscher@yahoo.com or follow her on twitter! Follow @lizroscher

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