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Thursday, 24 November 2011 20:04

A Life Transformed

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PUBLISHED: 24 Nov 2011 PRINT EDITION: 24 Nov 2011
Jill Margo
It was a socially awkward moment. Simon Eldridge was standing in a circle of friends at Christmas 2008 when someone made a funny remark. As he laughed, the contents of his mouth sprayed over the woman standing next to him.

Fortunately, it was only water, was easily dealt with and the party continued. But Eldridge stepped back in puzzled embarrassment. He didn’t know he was losing muscle power in his lips and that soon he would have difficulty holding them closed. Nor did he know this was an erratic early sign of an incurable disease that would put him in a wheelchair two years later.

At the time, Eldridge seemed indestructible. He was 44 and in his prime.

The financial markets were in a slump and, as managing director of Credit Suisse’s Australian equities sales trading, he had been staying in Sydney while his wife Sheila and their two sons took their annual break at the family’s holiday house in the Hunter Valley. He commuted on weekends.

When Sheila called him at work, his voice was intermittently slurred and she inquired if he had  been to lunch. He hadn’t. While she put it down to fatigue at the end of a tough year, he said it was odd and his tongue felt heavy.

Gradually, other things began happening. At night, Simon’s left arm began to twitch and cramp. Was it the way he was lying? There were pins and needles in his hand. Thinking his wedding ring might be restricting blood flow, he took it off.

As other symptoms developed, they went to their family doctor, who referred them to a neurologist. By now Sheila had been exploring Google and had narrowed Simon’s condition down to two possibilities; multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease (MND). She kept this to herself.

In May 2009, when the neurologist said the situation was grave and they should get their affairs in order, Sheila went to water.

She knew what was next but didn’t expect to hear that MND would disable Simon so quickly that he would be unable to work beyond Christmas. There was no cure and he would just grow weaker and weaker. They found their way back to the car, sat inside and wept. Eventually, Simon said: “Well, I guess we can sell the house in the Hunter. We could also sell the wine cellar.

“No way! I am going to need that,” Sheila replied.

They laughed, and rather than facing anyone, went for a quiet walk on Chinaman’s Beach, down from their house in Mosman. Then they turned for home, where Simon called his mother and his sisters while Sheila called the boys’ school to ask the counsellor for advice on how to guide them through this rapidly deteriorating situation.

Later, Simon went to work and told colleagues. Still reeling, his intention was to confront his circumstances as directly as he could. Nothing should be hidden. The Eldridges subsequently received a second opinion from an expert who softened the predictions, put Simon on medication to slow the progression and introduced him to a multi-disciplinary clinic where all aspects of his disease could be managed.

Relieved to have found the best care, and feeling almost upbeat, he and Sheila composed an email to friends and family disclosing their predicament (see below). To cope with what was surely coming, Simon began anti-depressants and has remained on a fairly even keel ever since. He’s engaged in the world and, as it is now an effort for him to speak, he carefully articulates what needs tobe said, conscious that it should be concise and intelligible.

Although difficult to understand, his mind is razor sharp and he is without illusions. He knows his body is declining inexorably. “Knowing where I have come from in the last two years, I have a pretty good handle on the future,” he says.

“On a daily basis the deterioration is very gradual but on a monthly basis is it pretty powerful and I know I am heading to paralysis. Three months ago, I could undo my pants and take them off. Now I can’t.”

“Mentally I am still capable of being an MD of our global investment bank, but physically I can’t do it. My computer chip retains all its memory but I am trapped inside a machine that is corroding.” Simon knows this disease will see him out but also knows some forms of it allow for longevity. The celebrated theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, was diagnosed at 21, is soon to turn 70 and is  still working.

The release of the iPad was well-timed for Simon because he can use the touch screen to manage his reading and correspondence, which he gets in abundance. He is genuinely surprised at the ongoing support he is receiving from colleagues. The esteem in which they hold him was reflected in a  celebration in March this year to mark his 30 years in the industry.

His career break came because he was tall for his age, and over the summer holidays the Melbourne stock
exchange was looking for a chalkie tall enough to list the price moves.
Simon, the son of a plumber, applied, got the position and went on to spend 26 years with McNab Clarke, now
Credit Suisse.
For the past 13 years, he has led the Credit Suisse Australian equities desk. For the celebration,  Credit Suisse took the extraordinary step of donating half its brokerage commissions from March 30 to the Eldridge Trust Fund and to nominated MND charities. Other brokers contributed too and $800,000 was raised.

Simon says about $300,000 went to three MND charities and the remainder to a trust fund for his sons and to help him with equipment and carers. He and Sheila made radical changes. First, their large federation family home, with its swimming pool, tennis court and period furniture, was sold with all its contents.

They scaled down to an apartment renovated for optimum wheelchair access. As he would be spending much time there, Simon wanted a large terrace, with a open view of the harbour and Chinaman’s Beach.

Simon traded his convertible for a vehicle that can ferry a wheelchair and he and Sheila continue to make the effort to go out. With his youthfulness and healthy glow, outsiders find it difficult to grasp that his life is slipping from him.

“Initially, I was in a bit of denial, but now I have come to terms with dying from this godforsaken disease,” he says. “My aim is to take as much pleasure out of life as I am capable of. I have to do whatever I can today because tomorrow I may not be capable of it.”

One pleasure is watching Fred, 16, and Henry,14, play sport. “They won’t have me in later life as I had my father and my greatest wish is that their education is assured so they continue to grow into the fine young men they are becoming.”

For Sheila, the only good thing about the experience is that they had time to shed debt and organise their finances. “Simon was finding bits everywhere that I would never have known about.

I used to pay the bills, but I didn’t know where it all came from. We’ve had that luxury of being able to prepare and it has made many of my friends sit up and think about their own situation,” she says. If Simon has one piece of advice, it is “never underestimate life insurance”.

The Australian Financial Review

Read 4596 times Last modified on Wednesday, 21 March 2012 10:53
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