It only took nine days for Marburg variant disease to change Wood River High School graduate Zac Gilstrap from a healthy 26-year-old guitar player to someone who couldn't walk, stand or feed himself. But in just one day, on June 9, a team of his high school friends will run 69.1 miles to try and make his burden just a little bit lighter.
A group of six Wood River High School graduates is looking for sponsors to run the Sawtooth Relay in June to help pay for Gilstrap's rehabilitation and medical bills. Since 2009, Gilstrap has been undergoing massive physical and occupational therapy aimed at helping him recover from the sudden onset of a degenerative disease.
Former classmate and current California resident Jamie Zott said she came up with the idea to raise money for Gilstrap via the Sawtooth Relay on a trip to Redfish Lake last year with some of their other classmates.
"I went to school with Zac, and we worked together for a while at the Liberty Theatre," she said. "When Zac got sick, I stayed in close touch with Kim [Coonis, executive director of the Senior Connection and Gilstrap's mother]."
Gilstrap was diagnosed with Marburg variant disease—a type of multiple sclerosis that presents as lesions on the brain and spinal cord—immediately after a trip to Nevada in 2009. Coonis said her son had called her and told her he was having trouble walking; within days, he had lost use of his arms, legs and even his memory.
"He went in nine days from a walking, talking active musician to someone who couldn't hold food in his hand and didn't know who we were," Coonis said.
The disease is so rare and so little is known about it that when Coonis went to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for information, it could offer little help.
"They gave me the Wikipedia definition and a brain scan from a dead woman," Coonis said. "People don't survive this disease. The fact that Zac has is a real miracle."
Gilstrap underwent chemotherapy in late 2009, and by 2010 began to regain use of his right arm and leg. He is now recovering, Coonis said, and is able to move the left side of his body, and his memory has returned to some extent.
"He thinks he's in high school," Coonis said, pointing out that it's appropriate that his high school classmates are raising the funds, given Gilstrap's current state.
"They're such great kids, and they've been so good with Zac," she said, adding that members of the team have stuck by her son when others didn't.
"At first when people get sick, everyone rallies around because they think that will make them better," she said. "But it's hard to see a friend go through that."
Zott said that despite her being in California, she felt it was important to do something to help her old friend.
"It was the least I could do," she said. "I have two healthy legs that move. I'm a mom and I can't imagine going through what Kim did with Zac. I hope, if something should happen, I'd be as strong as she is."
Zott said that though she has two healthy legs, she's been training constantly to get in shape for the race—the longest she has ever done. Former classmate Keely Eliason, who has taken on the local organizational responsibilities, said she had run the relay before, but only once.
"I said I'd never do it again," she said with a laugh. "But it's an opportunity to help out Zac."
The team hopes to raise at least $3,300 for a standing table, a piece of rehabilitation equipment that could help Gilstrap stand on his own one day.
Coonis said the table raises Gilstrap to a standing position, which helps increase circulation and strengthens the muscles needed to stand. Eventually, she said, Gilstrap should be able to stand without assistance.
Eliason said the team has raised more than $2,600 so far, but Zott said she won't stop there.
"Our goal is to go way beyond that, for just stuff he'll need in the future," she said. "The goal in my head, it would be amazing if we could get $10,000."
Individuals or businesses can sponsor a team member by contacting Eliason at 450-9453. No donation is too big or too small, Zott said. Those interested can also donate by purchasing raffle tickets for prizes donated by local businesses, or by purchasing "Team Zac" T-shirts—all of which can be obtained through Eliason or through the team's blog, zacgilstrap.wordpress.com.
Though fundraising is key to help Gilstrap continue his therapy, Zott said she is grateful that the fundraising has raised awareness of Gilstrap's disease and his family's struggle.
"A lot of people know Zac is sick, but they don't know details," she said. "Kim has never played the poor, pity card. She is such a strong, phenomenal woman, and she doesn't expect anything from anyone. I feel blessed that I have her in my life as well."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org
How to help
- Buy a raffle ticket: one for $5, five for $20 or 20 for $50.
- Buy a "Team Zac" T-shirt for $15.
- Sponsor a team member for any amount.
To help, contact Keely Eliason at 450-9453. All checks should be made out to the Bald Mountain Rescue Fund, with the name Zac Gilstrap in the memo line.