Faith and Friends Sustain Ken Swigart '64

by Marci Laehr Tenura

Story  courtesy of The Journal Times (Racine, Wis.)

Phyllis Swigart said she and her husband, Ken, have had their faith tested before in life, but they feel as though they are now facing their final exam.

And they don't plan to fail.

The couple has remained unwavering and prayerful, even as Ken has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. In a very short time their whole lives have changed, and the couple knows even more difficult days are ahead of them.

But they are not worried about tomorrow.

"Every day is a gift," Phyllis said.

"We believe that our entire lives are controlled by God," Ken said. "That's all the way from life to death. We feel like whatever God's plan is in my life, even though it's different than I would like it, it's God's choice for me and our family. We will honor that and however He chooses to use our experience to encourage others to recognize Him as in control of every aspect of our lives, we're willing to accept that."

A life-changing diagnosis Ken was diagnosed with ALS in June. He had been struggling to keep up with his usually active lifestyle after a major surgery two years prior. He couldn't jog anymore, his leg strength and ability to walk seemed to be getting weaker. Several visits to different doctors eventually sent him to the Mayo Clinic to see a neurologist.

The diagnosis was a shock to the couple. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy.

Currently, Ken is still able to stand and walk a little, but stairs have become very difficult for him. Eventually he will be in a wheelchair full time. Treatments, such as leg and foot therapy given to him by Phyllis; acupuncture and body massages; and pool therapy, have become a part of his weekly routine.

Although there is no cure for ALS, and Ken is aware the disease will some day take over his body, he says he is grateful for the good life God has given him. At 65, Ken counts his blessings daily, including his 42 years of marriage to his wife, their three children, and grandchildren.

They are also incredibly grateful to their many friends from college, church, work, their neighborhood and the community for their encouragement and support.

Giving back to Ken "My greatest satisfaction was gained by helping others," said Ken, who has spent his career working in finance, mostly for non-profit organizations. "Upon my retirement, I was looking forward to the likely possibility of doing voluntary missions work."

Instead, Ken and Phyllis find themselves in need of help. They are very grateful for the large group of family and special friends they have. "Today we are encouraged because many of these friends are faithfully praying for us, and consistently offering to help us in various ways."

Recently, someone from the community offered to take Ken to the pool for his therapy. The couple belongs to a health club that allows them use of the Racine Marriott's pool, and water therapy is very helpful to Ken.

"It's really a huge help to me," Phyllis said of the volunteer. "I do as much as I can. Ken used to go by himself, but it has gotten to the point where he should not. It's not wise."

In addition, many people have offered to help Phyllis with housework, grocery shopping, cooking. They have also offered daily prayers for the couple. The Swigarts are very encouraged by the support, which is particularly heartfelt from one special friend.

Ty Bryant, a college friend of Ken's who lives in Ohio, is determined to make life for the Swigarts as easy as possible. When he heard the couple was going to have to renovate their home to accommodate Ken's declining mobility, he began an effort that he hopes will help raise enough funds to do it.

"Ken would do the same for me," Bryant said.

In fact, the two men have a very special friendship that once had Ken offering his help to Bryant. Ty and his wife, Pat, went through a very difficult stage in their lives when their son had an accident and became paralyzed.

"Ken's really helped Pat and I survive," Bryant said. "He's a very other-person-orientated man. I have seen this time and time again. Ken is always concerned about other people first."

Now Bryant would like to help his friend, and, is in fact, convinced he will be able to. He has started a Web site - - for Ken, which tells his story and allows people to make donations to the Faith Community Foundation, which has a special fund set up for the Swigarts.

Great needs, great faith After Ken's diagnosis, the Swigarts realized that their two-story home in Union Grove wasn't going to accommodate his growing needs. All the bedrooms and full bathrooms are up a flight of stairs, which have become extremely difficult for him to climb.

The couple initially looked into selling their home and buying a handicap-accessible condo in the area. But all the condos they looked at would have required renovations. "The biggest issue is none of the bathrooms had a wheel-in shower," Phyllis said. "The bathrooms were all very small."

When they couldn't find something to move into, the Swigarts began to discuss other options. They came to the conclusion that it would be most effective and least disruptive for them to renovate their current home, adding a bedroom and bathroom to the first floor. They will also have to raise their existing sunken family room and have the roof in that area of the house raised.

The couple has the floor plans for the addition and construction, they just haven't started anything yet. That's because just the beginning costs for the renovation will probably be around $50,000 to $60,000.

But Bryant wants to get this accomplished for his friends. "We're all people of great faith," he said. "We're going to trust that $50,000 comes in. People think I'm crazy, but I'm praying this big. We're trying to see how fast we can get this building project up and running."

In fact, Bryant wants to have a groundbreaking ceremony this weekend while he and two other college friends are here visiting Ken.

Looking to the future Down the road, the Swigarts know they will have additional expenses, such as a special van with a lift for a wheelchair, and other special equipment for their home. The also know Ken's health will continue to decline. But they remain faithful.

"The only reason I'm able to cope is because I know where he's going," Phyllis said of her husband. "We believe in the everlasting."