Tim O’Toole, a former physical education teacher at Silverbrook Elementary School, lies in a bed in the front room of his home. He spends his days watching a flat screen TV above his family’s computer, surrounded by his wife of 17 years, Meighan, and four children, Olivia, 16; Griffin, 13; Kelleigh, 11; and MacKenzie, 9, while they tell him about their day and watch movies together.
Two summers ago, a warm afternoon would’ve been spent outside, playing games or splashing around in their neighborhood pool. That was before Tim O’Toole was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“One night, his left arm started twitching uncontrollably while he was asleep,” said Meighan O’Toole, standing by her husband’s bedside, rubbing his arm. “We went into the doctor on Monday morning and within a month, he was diagnosed with ALS.”
From that day in August 2004 until his retirement from Silverbrook in December 2004, Tim O’Toole continued to teach at Silverbrook, where he had been a physical education teacher since 1992. Many of his students had been in his classroom since they were in kindergarten, but it still came as a surprise to the family when, in June 2005, they were notified that the gymnasium at the school, along with the sixth grade class’s gift the school, a projector screen, were dedicated in his name.
It was only the beginning of the generosity of Silverbrook students, who this year raised over $17,000 for his care, and whose cards and letters of support and love fill the table inside the O’Toole home in Gainesville.
“We were absolutely surprised,” said Meighan O’Toole. “We knew they were doing something for him but we weren’t told until the week before school ended.”
Cheryl Ashraf, a longtime friend of Meighan O’Toole, said she had heard of the collection from another friend’s daughter who couldn’t contain her excitement.
“All she wanted to do was tell everyone they were doing,” Ashraf said of the students, who collected spare change, donations from their parents and other contributions in gold-painted gallon jugs.
“Inside the school, the kids had two display cases with ‘Mr. O’Toole’s Pot of Gold’ written on them,” said Meighan O’Toole, who keeps one of the golden pots on her husband’s desk. “It’s all just been unbelievable.”
BUT WHAT SURPRISED Meighan O'Toole her more were the letters, piles and piles of them, from students who had him for six years, those who never knew him, students who had gone on to high school and parents who wanted to thank him for his impact on their children.
“You don’t realize it, but to Tim, it was such a big deal,” she said. “The first few nights we had all the letters, we couldn’t read them all at once. We kept bawling, the letters are just so thoughtful.”
Near the end of the 2004-05 school year, a bus filled with teachers went to visit Tim O’Toole in his hospital room.
“They marched off the bus with a crossing guard and brought him a copy of the yearbook, which they also dedicated to him,” Meighan O’Toole said, laughing.
Life has changed for the O'Toole family in the past two years, and Meighan O'Toole said they wouldn't be coping as well without the help of their children.
"I don't know what we'd do without Olivia," she said of their oldest daughter, who helps to drive her brother and sisters around. "Our kids have been fantastic."
To the O'Toole children, however, it's been hard to watch their dad grow tired and become unable to take them to the pool or rollerblade on the sidewalk with them.
"We haven't been able to do a lot of the same stuff anymore," said Griffin.
TO TRY TO HAVE a normal summer vacation, Olivia, 16, drove Griffin and their sisters, Kelleigh and MacKenzie, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina last week, to visit their grandparents.
"It was the first time the four of us have gone on vacation alone," Olivia said.
Still, there have been some scary moments, like the Easter morning when their mother had to call an ambulance right before they hid their Easter eggs, MacKenzie said.
Or the time on Christmas when their father's ventilator broke on the way to their grandparents' house, and two of the girls were sitting in seats on either side of him, Kelleigh said.
"That was really scary," she remembered.
In their daily lives, however, the O'Toole family spends time with Tim any way they can, creating codes and special ways to communicate. Soon, they'll be getting a computer that will allow Tim to type words with his eyes that will also allow him to "speak" sentences, said Meighan O'Toole. Currently, when he wants to say something, she slowly goes through the letters of the alphabet and he blinks when she gets to the right one, carefully spelling out his thoughts.
"This is probably the worst disease a person can get," Ashraf said, rubbing Tim O'Toole's feet to keep the blood circulating. "With ALS, you're in a prison. Imagine having an itch and not being able to scratch it or tell someone where it is. But Tim never complains."
While the ALS Foundation "provides a lot of support for families," the only thing Meighan O'Toole wishes for is a cure.
"We need to raise more money for research so they can find one," she said. "ALS is a terrible disease. I can't imagine anything worse."
Until a cure is found, she will continue to dedicate her time to caring for her husband and children with the help of friends and the support of the Silverbrook community.
"It sure is a boost to Tim to know they care about him so much," she said.
Silverbrook Principal Bob Holderbaum said that Tim O'Toole was "a role model" for his students, "the kind of teacher that schools really need."
Like the O'Toole family, he was impressed by the generosity of his students and their parents, but said that hearing from Meighan O'Toole has "really forged a bond" between the family and the school that will keep them linked for years to come.
"She's an inspiration for us all," he said.
Holderbaum, who visited the family last week at their home, said he is reminded with every visit that the problems in life aren't always so bad.
"It really touches every fiber that one would have in terms of compassion and caring and consideration," he said.