No time for sympathy; Jim Rhodes tackles ALS

Jim Rhodes

Jim Rhodes participated in a Dear World event held at Miami in the fall of 2016.

By Ritter Hoy, university news and communications

The average admission tour of Miami University’s campus is about 8,000 steps. Multiply that by three, and that’s about how many steps Jim Rhodes takes everyday, and he never leaves his building.

Rhodes is the building services coordinator at the Armstrong Student Center. His daily duties range from tinkering with a broken deep fryer to installing light fixtures or new tile. It’s Rhodes’ job to keep the busiest building on campus running.

“Jim can fix anything,” said Katie Wilson, director of the Armstrong Student Center. “From a light bulb to a refrigerator to an air handler.”

It’s hard to miss Jim Rhodes. He’s built like a football player and wears a standard uniform of a red polo shirt with the beveled M logo, khaki work pants and a black Miami ball cap. He also has, what he calls, “a little giddy-up in his hitch.”

“I couldn’t get around without my bilateral AFOs (ankle-foot orthotics),” said Rhodes. He takes about 25,000 steps everyday with braces that are hidden by his standard work pants.

In 2014, Rhodes was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells and the spinal cord. Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it affects about 20,000 Americans, most often white males.

Although researchers don’t know what causes ALS, they suspect it’s related to repetitive concussions, and Rhodes estimates he’s had about 20 in his lifetime, playing all types of sports. He was recruited to play football at Hillsdale College and graduated in 1987 with a bachelor of arts in English.

The prognosis for ALS patients is grim. Nearly 90 percent of all people suffering from ALS will die within five years of their diagnosis.

At his current progression, Rhodes’ doctors say he should have very little use of his arms. He shouldn’t have use of his legs. He should have bulbar symptoms (related to face and head muscle function) and no use of his voluntary muscles. He should be on a feeding tube and close to needing a breathing machine.

Rhodes said an ALS diagnosis is the same as a death sentence, and that wasn’t going to work for him. He is dedicated to his role at Armstrong Student Center.

“I am working hard for you - all of you,” said Rhodes. “I am struggling everyday for you. I am not going to give up, and I am going to work as hard as I can everyday, and that’s a little bit harder for me.”

His doctors are puzzled by his progress and think of him as their guinea pig. Rhodes says it’s no mystery to him. He said being at Miami and the love he feels with all the students touches him, and that’s what keeps him going. His friends agree.

Maggie Reilly

Student Government President Maggie Reilly said Jim Rhodes "makes everyone he meets feel comfortable and loved."

“Jim’s story changed my life,” said Maggie Reilly, senior political science major and Associated Student Government (ASG) president. “His compassion for everyone in his life, whether it is a long time friend or a brand new acquaintance, is absolutely inspirational. He makes everyone he meets feel comfortable and loved, right off the bat.”

Not everyone knows what’s wrong with Rhodes. They may take notice of his limp, but it’s not a conversation starter. He wishes it would be. The more people know, the more likely they would be to donate money for research. Rhodes knows it may not save his life, but it could save someone else’s.

“His experience has raised my awareness of ALS,” said Wilson. ”He tells me about the cutting-edge research, and that knowledge makes me want to donate.”

He said he wouldn’t have done anything differently, except maybe played fewer downs. Rhodes is a new grandfather, and his evenings at home are spent snuggling with baby Lydia.

“Whatever you have, don’t take it for granted,” said Rhodes. “I used to have some financial security, but ALS expenses have wiped that out. But it’s just money. It helps, but it’s not the end all be all.”

He appreciates the smallest things. “I appreciate smiles. I appreciate people being kind to one another. I appreciate hugs,” said Rhodes.

Take a few extra steps during your next walk across campus and look for Rhodes. Meeting you will make his day. And meeting him will make yours.