Multiple sclerosis made Timothy Slane want to quit on himself. Friends and family kept him afloat.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published October 6, 2003
[Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
Timothy Slane tells his wife, Lee Castle-Slane, about the experience of skin against salt water. Slane has been battling multiple sclerosis, which robbed him of his ability to move, but leaves him able to feel. Story
Sitting alone in Room 58, Timothy Slane killed time, waiting to die.
It had been years since doctors said his multiple sclerosis couldn't be treated. The last friend he had left him at a Maryland nursing home.
Paralyzed from the neck down, Slane spent five years waiting for his muscles to short-circuit one last time.
Then his heart would stop and his nightmare would end.
He remembered spending his youth swimming in cold lakes in the Rocky Mountains. He thought about the ocean and his dream to taste salt water. He wanted to rock in the waves.
"I had given up," Slane said. "I was going to lay there until I died."
Then a woman rescued him from the nursing home, renewed his faith and brought him to Tarpon Springs. Here, on Sunday, she also gave him the chance to live his dream, to feel the warm waves of the Gulf of Mexico.
"God, it was cold!'
Slane, who turned 53 Sunday, was born in Billings, Mont., and raised among the oil fields of the Rockies. His stepfather worked the wells, and Slane's family followed the work from small town to small town.
He grew up a rancher, wrangling cattle and riding horses.
"I was a senior in high school, and me and my buddies liked to go find mountain lakes," Slane said. "This one time I convinced my buddy to climb this glacier and dive in . . . "When we hit, the first foot or so was all right, not too bad. But once we got below there, it was cold. God, it was cold!"
Talking about it, his eyes grow wide: As cold as it was, Slane would give anything to plunge in again.
Slane was a truck driver in his 20s when blurred vision sent him to the doctors. They told him he had multiple sclerosis, a disease that disrupts the messages the brain sends throughout the body.
"It's kind of like taking off the insulation to the wiring on your car," Slane said. "Eventually, there's a short. And you need to replace the wiring."
But there's no replacement for Slane's shorted-out nerves.
His brain can tell his leg to move. But it sits lifeless, propped up by a pillow that acts as padding on his motorized wheelchair. He can tell his hand to scratch his knee, but someone has to do it for him.
When he lost the use of his legs, Slane went to Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colo., where he earned a degree in psychology. He started teaching classes there.
Life was good, except for the MS, which he ignored.
He just taught until he couldn't teach anymore. The MS moved up his body, and he became weaker.
Looking at the ceiling with tears in his eyes, he said, "I know what I needed to do, but I never got it covered in time." He had to face his illness head on.
He and a friend drove cross-country looking for help. Slane went to the Johns Hopkins Multiple Sclerosis Center in Baltimore in search of a cure.
He came away deserted and ready for death.
"Love at first sight'
Doctors told Slane that the disease's effects weren't reversible. His friend left him in the Corsica Hills Nursing Home in Centreville, Maryland. He sat in Room 58 for five years.
That's where he met Lee Castle, the woman who became his wife and savior.
"I wasn't about to let him die in there," Lee Castle-Slane said.
She had quit a 15-year job as a yacht repairwoman to get away from "all those snobs" and became an assistant at Corsica Hills. During her training, she was warned about the grumpy man in Room 58.
It intrigued her.
"I was sitting at my computer pouting when somebody said this new girl wanted to meet me," he said. "I turned around, and . . ."
"It was love at first sight," said Castle-Slane, who said she immediately knew Slane didn't belong in a nursing home. "His mind was perfect, beautiful. Just because his body didn't work they put him in there. That was wrong."
Within months they were married. Three months after that, Castle-Slane arranged her husband's discharge from Corsica Hills. The two celebrated their third anniversary Aug. 14.
"I took him home for Thanksgiving and never brought him back," Castle-Slane said.
Castle-Slane packed everything she could fit into Slane's burgundy conversion van, which had been stuck knee-deep in mud for the five years he was in the home. Then the two took off.
They were headed to Tarpon Springs to start anew.
Watching, waiting, wading
Timothy Slane's MS defines every day he lives. His life is simple, because it has to be. He and his wife rent a modest home owned by a friend of hers and get by on a small disability pension. Once a week, a hospice volunteer comes to check on him.
He spends his mornings watching a banana tree grow in the front yard. He checks on a pond of goldfish in the back.
He works on a voice-activated computer. He's working on an autobiography but can only add a few sentences a day because it becomes too hard to speak. He watches television.
"He loves to watch the water temperatures," Castle-Slane said. "He does it every day."
Slane is fascinated the water here could be so warm. He has wondered what that water feels like since the day the couple arrived here more than a year ago.
With water temperatures hovering in the 80s, he nagged Slane to go swimming.
Slane still has sensation throughout his body. He feels pain in his hips that requires injections of morphine. But it also means he could sense the salt water against his body.
Once he got close. Last winter the couple went to the east coast of Florida to the Atlantic Ocean, but the water was too cold for Slane to get in, despite his experience in chilly waters. Instead, he sat on a raft and was pushed by the waves.
Even that was remarkable.
"I could remember the taste of that water," he said. "It was great."
Sunday, after years of waiting, Slane got wet.
Wayne Brady, a friend of Castle-Slane's for 20 years, flew down from New Jersey with his sister and a life jacket to help get Slane in the water. He was there with the Slanes on the Atlantic as well, when it was too cold.
Castle-Slane needs an extra set of hands to lift Slane out of his wheelchair and into the water. Brady was there to help.
"Tim is a great, great man," Brady said. "Of course I'd be here. I'd do anything for that guy."
The foursome set off at 10:45 a.m. Sunday for Fred Howard Park, Brady behind the wheel and Castle-Slane holding onto Slane in the back of their van.
At the park, they lifted Slane from his regular wheelchair to a chair made especially for the beach. It has a blue mesh seat and golf-cart-size rubber tires. Slane pushed Slane to the waterfront, right past teenagers on cell phones, parents scolding toddlers and grandmothers sunbathing.
Then Castle-Slane and Brady dressed Slane in the bright-orange life jacket and carried him into the gulf. It was a simple moment that meant everything to Slane.
"Thank you for everything," he said, his bright brown eyes peeking out from under tinted glass. "It means so much."
And then he floated.
After a while, the group propped Slane up on a beach chair in the water.
And then he sat.
He had seaweed on his chest. He felt the touch of a sea slug. He watched children be baptized in the waters nearby.
"This is wonderful," he said.
Slane even called his stepfather, James Clyde, who is back in Casper, Wyo. He got Clyde's answering machine.
"I'm calling you from the Gulf of Mexico with a bunch of friends floating in the water," Slane said. His birth father died of MS years ago. "I hope you're not freezing your buns off there back in Wyoming."
While the world moved on around him - teens talked on cell phones, kids built sandcastles and boats cut through the water - Slane killed time in the warm waters of the gulf.
Dying wasn't in the plans, though.
In fact, he wasn't leaving any time soon, he said.