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The Steuben Courier Advocate
  • ‘It makes a big difference’

  • Jack O’Donnell spent the bulk of his career enriching the lives of Steuben County’s children.

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  • Jack O’Donnell spent the bulk of his career enriching the lives of Steuben County’s children.
    In 1968, O’Donnell began a decade-long stint teaching fifth grade at Painted Post Elementary and Middle School. He followed that with a two-year tenure as a sixth-grade teacher/assistant principal at Northside Blodgett.
    Then, following three years away from education, he spent nearly 18 more years as an administrator at Corning Free Academy, West High, Campbell-Savona and Carder Elementary School, with a brief retirement preceding his final job.
    “I enjoy kids,” said O’Donnell, who also coached basketball and football. “I was there for the kids ... I turned down the superintendent position in Campbell because I didn’t want to be away from the kids.”
    Even after he left the classroom for the principal’s office, O’Donnell made a point to interact with his students daily.
    “I would clear my calendar for two hours every morning and go around and see the kids,” O’Donnell said.
    When O’Donnell finally called it career, it meant more winter months in Florida with his wife, Pauletta, and more time on the golf course.
    “I was playing 18 holes and walking two miles every day,” O’Donnell said.
    Then, about a year ago, everything changed. “I noticed my hamstrings got tight,” O’Donnell.
    Next, “he started stumbling when he walked,” Pauletta said.
    When the couple returned from Florida last spring, O’Donnell went to see his doctor.
    “There was nothing on the MRI,” he said.
    O’Donnell underwent more tests, and the diagnosis was startling: He was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as nonaggressive lymphoma.
    O’Donnell and his family were shocked, and they sought a second opinion at the Cleveland Clinic. The doctors there reaffirmed the diagnosis.
    “The neurologist said, ‘Even my colleagues can’t believe I’m sitting here telling you this,’” Pauletta said, noting the doctors’ disbelief.
    ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that ultimately leads to total paralysis. Although paralyzed, victims’ minds remain sharp. The ALS Association estimates that only 30,000 Americans suffer from the disease.
    MS is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. The symptoms of the disease vary greatly, but they can include numbness in limbs, paralysis and loss of vision, according to the MS Society. MS is thought to affect more than 2.1 million people worldwide, according to the MS Society.
    There is no cure for either disease, and doctors aren’t exactly sure of their cause. But the odds of having both are extremely long.
    “The neurologist said it happens to people who are well-known,” said O’Donnell’s daughter, Julie Pusateri. “They don’t know why.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Since being diagnosed, O’Donnell’s ALS has progressed fairly quickly. For several weeks, he got around with a cane, then he needed a walker. Now, he requires a wheelchair to get around. Doctors have not told the family how long O’Donnell might live, but only 20 percent of ALS victims live longer than five years, according to the ALS Association.
    O’Donnell receives daily medication, and aides help him stretch every morning.
    “The disease makes him very stiff,” O’Donnell’s son, Scott O’Donnell, said.
    The family has sought to include O’Donnell in clinical trials, but they say he’s always turned down.
    “As soon as I tell them he’s got multiple things,” they turn him down, Pauletta said.
    For now, the family takes O’Donnell’s battle one day at a time. They lean on one another for support, and O’Donnell’s strength keeps them going.
    “He sits there in that chair every day with a smile on his face,” Pusateri said. “He never complains.”
    Said Pauletta: “He’s been positive and determined. He hasn’t let us sit down and say, ‘poor me.’ I’ve remained strong because of him.”
    Scott O’Donnell praised his mother’s strength.
    “My mom deserves a lot of credit,” he said. “She’s the strong one.”
    Beyond leaning on one another, the family relies on support from the community. During O’Donnell’s long education career, he impacted the lives of countless people, many of whom remain in touch.
    “We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity and support from the community,” Pauletta said, noting that a neighbor built a full bathroom on the first floor of the couple’s home. “It’s just been unbelievable.
    “In October and November, I was struggling the most. (Supporters) rallied me every day.”
    Pusateri said her father receives daily phone calls and visits from friends and former students.
    “As soon as someone comes in, he brightens up,” Pusateri said.
    Said O’Donnell: “When I have friends come by, it makes a big difference.”
    One of O’Donnell’s longtime golf buddies is holding a fundraiser for him from 1-4 p.m. April 14 at the Horseheads Elks Lodge. It will feature a buffet and raffles.
    “It’s unbelievable how the community has rallied to make donations,” Pauletta said.

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