By Joyce DeWallace, Contributing Writer
Northborough – ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease, has no cure. It attacks the nervous system, weakens muscles, and affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Matt Bruce was just 24 when he had his first symptoms.
“He noticed that his speech wasn’t right, almost like he had been drinking. His hands were shaking. There was something wrong,” explained his father Jim.
His mother, Natalie, said she first noticed something different in his speech in the fall of 2012. By Thanksgiving, his good friend Jennifer Gauvin, who had shared many classes with him in high school, also noticed that Matt had changed.
In the early spring of 2013, Matt went to his doctor. His speech was getting worse, and he had lost weight. He was sent to a neurologist and then for tests.
“They stuck needles in him everywhere, even in his tongue. It was a terrible, terrible test; very painful and frightening,” Natalie said. Matt got the diagnosis of ALS in April of 2013.
“Once he was diagnosed, the disease progressed rapidly, very fast,” she noted. “He had bulbar onset ALS, which starts with speech. You lose your ability to talk, to swallow, to eat and finally to breathe,” Jim said.
Matt accepted the devastating news and continued working, driving his car, going to hockey games, then traveling. He toured Europe with his cousin and her husband, then the whole family took a trip to Ireland.
“People in Westborough and Northborough raised money for us to take this trip,” Jim said. “People were so generous, and so many people loved Matt.”
Matt’s passion was hockey. He started playing at age 12 for the Starhawks Youth Hockey Association and fell in love with the sport. He played through high school, then in an adult men’s league. He also loved anything outdoors: fishing, hunting, and hiking.
According to Gauvin, he was a diehard Bruins fan.
“Everybody at the Garden knew him. He got close to goalie Tuukka Rask, who handed him a winning game stick one night,” said Gauvin.
At one of the last games he attended, the Bruins had him sit in a special area and had Bob Sweeney, a former Bruins star and president of the Boston Bruins Alumni Association, join the Bruces, and sign player trading cards for Matt.
“He absolutely loved it, and although by that time he couldn’t talk or eat, he gave a big thumbs up,” Jim recalled.
“Once we learned his shattering diagnosis, all of his friends wanted to support him and help by fundraising,” said Gauvin. “When he was still alive, we organized a 5K road race, Miles for Matt. Over 300 people had signed up online. When I told Matt, he was so happy, and he could never thank me enough. Unfortunately, he died two weeks before that inaugural race. It became like a memorial race and over 800 people showed up. We ran out of everything, and raised over $20,000.”
The proceeds of the races, over $50,000, have been donated to Compassionate Care ALS, a nonprofit organization based out of Falmouth that offers individualized support to people living with ALS, their family members and their caregivers. Ron Hoffman, the founder, has reached out to the Bruces and provided heartfelt support and become a close friend. Jim now serves on its board to provide that same kind of support for other ALS families.
The family has decided that this year is the final race. Miles for Matt will be held on Saturday, May 6, at the Proctor Elementary School, 26 Jefferson Road, in Northborough. Online registration is available at www.milesformatt.racewire.com. Anyone who preregisters is guaranteed a t-shirt. The cost of this year’s event is $30 for adults and $15 for children. Registration on race day starts at 8:30 a.m. The walk/run begins at 10 a.m. Wegmans continues to be a generous sponsor providing breakfast bars, fruit and water. There will be music and guest speakers.
In an online statement, Natalie wrote: “We would appreciate having the biggest crowd ever for the final race. Thank you to everyone who has supported us over the past three years. We continue to miss Matt more than we can ever explain to anyone. Please help us celebrate an incredible life one last time…”