Dave Parker, PALS, and Christy Hansen, CALS, met while working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and were married in 2016.
When asked about his path to a career at Goddard Space Flight Center, Dave recollects “I always had a love of airplanes and space. I enjoyed flying as a private pilot for several years. I always knew I wanted to do something in the aerospace field, so I began flying satellites at an Airforce base in California. In the 1990s I started my dream job as an engineer at NASA’s Goddard to support the Hubble Telescope servicing missions. Even though I didn’t complete my childhood dream of going to space, I was able to work on a lot of pieces of equipment that did go to space. I’m currently working from home using eye-gaze technology to do engineering work for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions and International Space Station science experiments.”
Christy also had a passion for space at a young age, she recalls “I always wanted to be an astronaut. I’ve always loved space. After graduate school, I worked at Johnson Space Center, training astronauts to do spacewalks on the International Space Station for Hubble Missions. And then I can to NASA Goddard and worked on robotic procedures used to repair a simulated satellite payload on the International Space Station and it was through working with that that I got to know Dave as a colleague and friend.”
Dave first noticed his symptoms of ALS in late 2014, when he had difficulty picking up a key. After approximately a year of frequent doctor’s appointments and diagnostic tests to rule out other illnesses, Dave was diagnosed with ALS on November 19, 2015, just months before Dave and Christy’s wedding.
Christy, upon reflecting on the early days of Dave’s ALS diagnosis, said “When Dave was first diagnosed, I didn’t believe the diagnosis. In my mind I was ‘there’s no way its ALS.’ I kept thinking it was a misdiagnosis and it wouldn’t progress and further. It’s easy to think that no one that I love or I’m close to would ever have ALS. It’s one of those diseases that other people have.”
Four years after Dave’s ALS diagnosis, Christy comments on the experience of the progression of Dave’s symptoms “After a while, all that gradual progression adds up, so suddenly within the past six months all those little losses here and there have added up to total loss. You’ve lost your arms, hands, legs, and not it’s you voice and swallowing. I know it’s not all at once, but it feels like it is, because before if he couldn’t use his left hand, he could overcome it with his right hand. There was always a way to adapt. It feels like it’s getting real now that he’s lost the use of both of his legs and arms. Each day is difficult, and it feels like the next day is more difficult. It’s not like you’re ever going to plateau.” Dave agreed, adding “You never really know what is going to hit you next so it’s a challenge to try to be prepared anyway you can for that next thing that suddenly you can’t do.”
Christy’s career has been centered around considering and planning for everything that could possibly go awry during a spacewalk. Christy is a master planner, and ALS is extremely difficult to plan for. With each symptom coming at a slightly different rate or order for each individual, and only having the opportunity to see one’s doctor every six months, it can feel overwhelming to plan ahead, let alone have a back-up plan for. Christy remarks “For ALS families, the list of concerns is infinite.”
In trying to balance the stress of life living with ALS, Christy comments on how they prioritize enjoying life “Some days I want a piece of chocolate cake, but eventually someone with ALS can’t have chocolate cake. So how do you replace the feeling of chocolate cake? All the little sacrifices add up. Dave used to ski, hike, fly airplanes, sail, and work on cars. You have to fight through all the feelings of loss and find the joy, but you have to adapt what the joy looks like. I try to think of awesome something to surprise him that doesn’t require the use of his hands. I started the Dave Parker Lecture Series, and I sent an invitation out to my NASA colleagues and friends who enjoy the same hobbies as Dave to arrange for someone to regularly give a technical presentation for Dave to keep his mind engaged. And astronaut that we know, Drew Feustal, called us from the International Space Station. The goal is to get Dave so fixated on the discussion that in that moment, he may forget that he has ALS because he’s so focused on the topic at hand… You can be so overwhelmed with caregiving that you can lose sight of the whole purpose of life. The most important thing is that you don’t have to stop enjoying life. You may have to adapt what you do to enjoy life is. I do try to spend a lot of time on making sure that Dave has people around him that love him and engage him in conversation because that can become lost after an ALS diagnosis.”