It began with a case of what is known as "drop foot." In early 2009, La Cañada Flintridge resident Bonnie Hine found herself unable to flex her toes, and then her ankle, in the routine motions used during walking.
Her balance suffered, and she found herself falling while performing common household tasks. The problems persisted, and Hine, 68, knew that whatever was going on, it was more than the result of natural aging.
She repeatedly searched the Internet for clues to her symptoms and eventually made an appointment with a neurologist. After a battery of examinations and tests, she was given a definitive diagnosis — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, so named for the baseball star who succumbed to it in 1941.
"Anybody who has ALS knows the date [of their diagnosis]," Hine said. "It is just horrendous — Nov. 3, 2009."
A progressive neurodegenerative disease, Lou Gehrig's affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Patients lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement. Eventually they are left paralyzed, unable to swallow or breathe. The life expectancy is two to five years from diagnosis.
As an educator, most recently at the Crescenta-Cañada Cooperative Nursery School, Hine was always teaching. She taught children how to sing the ABCs, to tie their shoe laces, to follow directions. She taught her colleagues how to handle difficult students and how to manage worried parents.
Even now, her mobility diminishing, Hine is still teaching those around her. And it is, perhaps, the most important lesson of all — how to live out her final years with the same grace and courage that has endeared her to family and friends throughout a lifetime.
Hine moved to La Cañada on Oct. 2, 1971, the day she married Maynard Hine. Her husband was raised in Glendale and worked as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His family owned the May Lane Motel, at Briggs Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, a local landmark used in numerous film and television shoots.
The couple had one child, Matthew, whom they enrolled at the local cooperative nursery school. Hine had experience in early-childhood development and was a frequent volunteer. When a teaching position opened up in 1987, she was hired.
"She would talk to the children as if they were on the same level and that is a very good thing to do with young children," said La Cañada resident and colleague Linda Labrie.
Among Hine's favorite activities during her years at the school was driving into the mountains to collect pinecones that her students could decorate and hang on their Christmas trees each December.
"I enjoyed children because it was a great challenge for me to be able to sit down, eye-to-eye on the rug together, and chat," Hine said. "And I would try to figure out the puzzle of this child, what made up this child, what made this child unique…and then try to decide how I could facilitate whatever needs they had."
Colleague Nita Imm liked to go into Hine's classroom and observe Hine at work. It was from Hine that she learned the patience and the love needed to interact with students and their parents, Imm said.
"There are still a lot of things that I will hear myself say to a parent of a child, and I know that I learned it from Bonnie," Nita Imm said. "The words came right from Bonnie."
Imm is mobilizing former teachers and students from CCNS to rally in support around Hine. She has established "Bonnie's Buddies," a fundraising team that will participate in the Walk to Defeat ALS on Oct. 24 in Pasadena.
"I can take Bonnie out to lunch and I can sit and talk with her, but I wanted to do something to help with her situation," Imm said.
It is just one of many examples of support since her diagnosis, Hine said. She joined the ALS Association, which helps connect ALS patients and their loved ones with support groups, counseling, caregivers and much-needed, and very expensive, medical equipment. A nurse, Astrid Hirsch, who lives nearby, visits Hine five days a week for two hours to provide in-house care. Neighbors stop by for visits. Friends take her on outings.
There are plenty of hard days, Hine said. As her condition deteriorated, she has moved from a cane, to a walker to a wheelchair. Some mornings she finds herself crying before she lifts her head from the pillow. She recognizes that her illness has forced those around her to think about their own mortality. And she worries about the burden placed on Maynard, who is nine years her senior. Sometimes, Hine said, they just sit and hold each other and cry.
"It's hard," Hine said. "ALS is disgusting and awful and terrible. It is really terrible. [There is] no cure, and there are 30,000 people in the United States who have it, and they diagnose 5,600 [additional cases] every year."
But there is still joy to be found in life, Hine said. In February she traveled to her hometown of Nampa, Idaho to visit her parents and sister. She is slowly going through her personal possessions and giving them away to loved ones. She wants to do it now, she said, so she can see the joy in their faces. She remains active with her Bible study group, and loves listening to old-time hymns. In fact, her illness has only served to intensify her relationship with God, she said.
"It is like an uninvited guest," Hine said of ALS. "There is nothing you did that brought it on. It just is. And you have to say it is either going to get me down or I am going to keep going. And what I have decided to do is to say, this uninvited guest is in my body. I am going to make the best of it. I am not going to let it overpower me. But I know I'll be rid of it in Heaven. It won't be there in Heaven."