In Finney home, Fran gives care, quality of life to husband Hal

Fran and Hal Finney

Fran and Hal Finney

This is a love story.

When Hal and Fran Finney both ran, Hal preferred doing longer distances.

That all changed four years ago. Now, it’s Fran going the extra miles. It’s hard and draining, but she it does every day with a heart full of love, making sure her husband has the best quality of life possible.

Hal suffers from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s a debilitating affliction that took over Hal’s once healthy, strong, fit body.

Fran cares for him full time in their Turnpike-area ranch home. The caregiving is taxing and intense, but when Hal smiles at her, the message it sends soothes her to the soul and gives her strength.

The Palace Grill, in coordination with the web site, CentralCoastDining.com, is donating a percentage of its sales this month to the Muscular Dystrophy Association to help in the research of finding a cure for ALS, MD, and other related diseases.

Before he was diagnosed in August of 2009, Hal had a goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Now just going to bed at night and waking up in the morning is like trying to make it over Heartbreak Hill. It’s unbelievably tough.

But the power of love moves people to do amazing things. And, Fran is doing those things, not only to ensure Hal gets through each day but he has purpose and enjoyment in his life despite living in a body ravaged by this terrible disease.

He’s essentially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, but they’ll go to Ellwood Beach, watch movies on their big screen TV, listen to music, read. They’ve even gone camping at El Capitan.

You must feel like the luckiest man in the world, a visitor said to Hal.

“Yes, very lucky,” he replied through a synthesized voice in a computer set up on his customized wheelchair.

CCD_Promo-PalaceGrill

Because of the ALS, Hal’s tongue blocked his airway. He had a tracheostomy to open the air passage through his throat, allowing him to breathe with less effort. The disease also weakened his respiratory muscles, so there are times he needs a ventilator.

“He was able to talk for a while after his tracheostomy, but his voice was softer,” said Fran. “As time went on, he stopped being able to form words as his ALS took away his speech muscle.”

Hal and Fran competing in one of many races together

Hal and Fran competing in the Denver Half-Marathon together

It’s an overwhelming responsibility to care for someone with Hal’s disability, but Fran, a physical therapist by profession, has plenty of help. Their son, Jason, lives at home and provides technical, physical and moral support. Like his parents, Jason, 28, attended Caltech.

And there’s “Hal’s Team” of caregivers from Hospice of Santa Barbara. Mark Collier, Muriel Ross, Peggy McInerny and Lindsley Wessberg visit the home, allowing Fran to take a break.

She uses the break to run errands and meet up with friends for a run.

“I have a few friends who have arranged their schedules to my schedule. I like that,” she says. The running makes her “feel much more normal and it keeps me balanced.”

She runs with a group called the “Run Free Group,” which was organized by longtime local runners Jim and Elaine Triplett.

Running has been a big part of Hal and Fran’s life in Santa Barbara. While he enjoyed doing the longer distances and was more into the “Chi” or “Zen” of the activity, Fran preferred doing shorter, faster runs. She twice won the Elite Women’s Masters Division of the State Street Mile, with Hal as her coach.

“It was different for the two of us,” Fran said of their approach to running. “He was very methodical about it. He would plan his workouts. He always had a goal on where he wanted to go. He’d go out there with no (headphone) music; he wanted to feel the environment.”

“I did my long runs alone,” Hal interjected.

He would go so far as to check the tides table to see if he could do a long beach run.

“He would plan his runs around low tide and see how far he could go,” she said. “He knew so many ways to run in Santa Barbara; he’d have it all mapped out.

“I, on the other hand, like shorter runs and I like people around. When I used to run with Hal, I’d either do short runs with him or do part of his run and I’d meet with him later. I like running with the group because it keeps me motivated and I like to run with music.”

Hal and Finney have received great support from the Santa Barbara Athletic Association and the local running community.

Hal and Finney have received great support from the Santa Barbara Athletic Association and the local running community.

On his encouragement, Fran joined the Santa Barbara Athletic Association and competed in its Grand Prix Series of races. She won the 55-59 age-group season title in 2011 and finished second last year and in 2010. She was runner-up in the 50-54 age group in 2009 and ’08.

The SBAA has been very supportive of the Finneys. Last year, the organization honored them at a picnic.

Fran loves competition and she’s set some running goals for this year: reclaim the Masters Elite title in the State Street Mile, run in the Masters Track Meet at City College, and “get Hal to come out and watch me. He’s always been my coach. He knows my personality.”

Hal: “I don’t coach Fran much any more.”

As he says it, she fights to hold back tears.

“He’s my motivation,” she says. “It’s not scientific any more. With him it’s real scientific.”

Hal is a computer scientist and an expert in encrypted code. He was one of the first employees of the software company PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) Corporation.

He still writes code from his computer, although he says it takes 50 times longer to do it.

After Fran recovered from some running-related injuries and before the disease took over Hal’s body, the Finneys did a couple of half marathons together. Fran keeps a photo album on her computer of events they’ve done. There’s a March, 2009 picture of them in warm-up suits, hats and gloves finishing Fran’s first 13.1-mile race in Denver, where their daughter, Erin, lives. Fran is beaming.

There’s another photo of them running hand in hand, arms raised triumphantly as they complete the Disneyland Half Marathon in Anaheim in early September of ’09. They ran it in 1:59.27.

That would be Hal’s last race. One month earlier, he was diagnosed with ALS and the symptoms were getting stronger — severe muscle cramps, twitching, fatigue, slurring of speech.

“He knew something was wrong,” Fran recalled. “I knew something was wrong because of how tired he was.”

He set out to qualify for the Boston Marathon by running in the L.A. Marathon in late May but the muscle cramping and twitching forced him to pull out about halfway through the race.

Hal and Fran lead their relay team at the Santa Barbara International Marathon.

Hal and Fran lead the Muscular Dystrophy Association relay team at the Santa Barbara International Marathon in 2009.

He signed up for the inaugural Santa Barbara International Marathon in November, but by that time he needed two canes to walk.

The Muscular Dystrophy Association sponsored the Finneys to be part of a relay team for the SBI Marathon and Hal did the last two miles with his canes.

“Rusty and June Snow (the race directors) have been so supportive to us,” said Fran. “June is like an angel; she’s so great.”

In 2010, he did the relay leg driving his motorized chair, and the last two years Fran’s driven him in the relay.

“I’d like to keep doing it even if Hal can’t be part of it,” she said. “We’re very honored that the Santa Barbara Marathon has kept Hal on their web site. It’s very special.”

The shock of learning the love of her life was stricken with this incurable disease was unimaginable for Fran.

“In some ways, that first year was worst than now because I felt like our lives had been taken away from us,” she says. “We’d been married 30 years and I was sure we were going to live to see our 50th anniversary. I was sure Hal was gong to outlive me because he was healthy. He would be taking care of me in our old age. I was certain of that.”

She wasn’t going to accept it and tried everything from alternative treatments, acupuncture, intravenous infusions of vitamins and medicines, and clinical trials to stop the disease.

“We did everything you could think of, and it progressed really fast while we were doing this,” she said. “I just felt I was going crazy trying everything and we couldn’t control it.”

“Very true,” said Hal.

“It’s tough,” Fran said. “You want to struggle and fight and deny it and say, ‘I’m not accepting this.’

“Hal used to say we’re a good blend because I was the fighter and he was the adapter. He adapted to things and I fought. That’s what we did with this too.”

Hal: “Sometimes I forget I’m disabled.”

It’s all because of Fran and her undying love.

Speak Your Mind

*