Christine Atherton, Mike Atherton, Sharon Atherton, Harper Atherton
Mike Atherton and his family look for results beyond chronic fatigue syndrome from the Catalyst Fund.
Closer to home, they look for a cure for a wife, a daughter-in-law and a self.
“I’d love to see a cure for my wife!” he says. “But as we learn more about this disease, we’ll learn more about other diseases. It’s not just going to help CFS. We’ll solve a whole host of diseases through this research. The ‘catalyst’ name is apropos – it’s a catalyst for addressing more than just this one disease.”
His wife Christine was bright and athletic. She played championship-level softball and soccer. She and Atherton went to college and graduate school together; they were active and enjoyed business success. “She had a lot to give, and with a cure, will again. The challenge now, at this point, is that she’s not even leaving the house,” Atherton says. “We didn't have children; the disease presented itself at about that time in our lives, so we faced a different kind of challenge.”
Christine became ill in 1995 with a sudden, flu-like illness. They were both out of town in different cities; she called him to tell him she was going to her hotel room with a sore throat and a low-grade fever. When she got home, the family doctor said it was a viral infection that would run its course in 10 to 14 days. It didn’t.
She struggled on, reducing her hours at work and eventually quitting altogether. Slowly she began to get better, starting a small business and doing some volunteer work that she could handle at her own pace. “That’s what people don’t understand about high-functioning people with CFS,” says Atherton. “They can control their own destiny – do things 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there. We travelled, but on our own terms.”
All that ended in 2008.
Christine relapsed. And last year, she began to experience sharp pains in her back. Following surgery to remove her enlarged spleen, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After an 18-week round of chemotherapy, she ever-so-slowly began to climb back.
But this spring, “she had a fall-off like we’ve never seen before,” Atherton says. “She’s effectively homebound now. It’s distressing – we were so high-functioning for so long, we thought one day she’d be well and we could forget about all this.”
The Athertons have made supporting The Catalyst Fund a family affair. Not only has the couple made separate gifts, but Mike’s parents have donated as well. “My mom is really involved because I travel a lot. She’ll come and look in on her, prepare a meal, straighten the house,” he says. “To my mother, Christine is like a daughter. I joke that the hierarchy is Christine, then me and my brother! She fits as one of their philanthropies.”
He believes in the Association’s broad-spectrum approach to research. “It’s not all the eggs in one basket, which seems to be needed at this point,” says Atherton. “I’d like to see the development of a biomarker so that you can definitively say, ‘this is the disease that you have.’ I’d like to see either treatment, or perhaps a cure. I’d to see patient advocacy for those patients who sometimes can’t get to the doctor to get treatment.”
Atherton tells anyone he talks to about The Catalyst Fund – about CFS research in general – is that this is the place to be “if they want to be on the frontier of medical research and make a fundamental difference in the lives of those who suffer from CFS and, from that knowledge, other diseases as well. Think about it: cancer was a death sentence 20, 40, 50 years ago. Now there’s treatment. I want to see the same bright outlook for people with CFS. I want us to be able to say, ‘The bad news is, you have CFS. The good news is, here are the treatment protocols that any physician, or at least all infectious disease specialists, can employ.’”
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