A ‘journey to heaven’

Todd Alward, diagnosed with ALS four years ago, is preparing to die.

Todd Alward’s journey with ALS is approaching its final destination.

He’s excited about his next journey, which begins Monday. His journey to heaven.

“March 13 is the first day of my going-to-heaven journey,”Alward said, sitting in a bed at a hospice home in Byron Center, where he moved on Jan. 20, the day after his 59th birthday.

Without his medicines, oxygen and breathing assistance, and with closely monitored pain control, Todd is expected to slip away. It could take hours, days, a week or more.

He’s ready, he says. Excited, even. Since being diagnosed in 2013, ALS has robbed Todd of his dignity, his muscles, his breathing and soon, he fears, his speech.

“It’s my decision,” he said of beginning the dying process, which will be handled by a hospice doctor. “It was something I kind of knew right in the beginning, when Dr. Twydell told me (the diagnosis).”

On July 10, 2013, Paul Twydell, DO, a neurologist who specializes in neuromuscular disorders with Spectrum Health Medical Group, broke the news to Todd. The three letters that would forever change his life—ALS.

At that time, Todd had been experiencing strange leg pains. He noticed arm weakness when he’d try to pull back the string on his bow. He got cramps during his job as a truck driver for Lumbermen’s. When he tried to mow the lawn, his ankles would give out. Even as early as 2006, he remembers noticing one arm was smaller than the other.

When Dr. Twydell confirmed the ALS diagnosis, Todd remembers pausing, but making a decision right then and there.

“I sat back for a moment and decided, ‘I’m going to do the best I can with it.’ I just kind of said, ‘Keep smiling,’” Todd said during an interview with Health Beat two years ago. “I want to deal with this in a positive way. It’s so important to keep smiling, keep laughing and share smiles.”

And he has. Last week, lying on what will soon be his death bed, Todd still smiled.

He spoke of his future. A happy and soon-to-be gratifying one, he believes.

“In the beginning, I realized when the time came that I couldn’t walk, my arms were about done, not knowing where I would be with breathing or talking, I knew there would be a time I would like to go to heaven,” Todd said, surrounded by his mom, June, sister, Leisha, and brother, Ross.

“As my body wore down, I was just waiting for that right time,” he said. “I was always telling everyone ‘the middle of March.’ I decided I just needed to pick a day. I picked the 13th and I’m sticking with it.”

Family is forever

The tears flow. From Todd, June, Leisha and Ross. They’re meant to. This family has made it a life mission to always be there for one another, to love, support, honor, no matter what.

No matter how much Todd and his family fought, and accommodated his weakening body, first in June’s home with a stair lift and other home modifications, and now at the hospice home, it appears ALS is about to win.

But in a larger sense, they all believe, Todd will.

“I’m happy in my heart and mind, knowing I can change, as in get healed when I go to heaven,” Todd said. “Like it says in the Bible, God promises to make you strong, firm and steadfast. That’s what I look forward to. And of course, seeing Jesus. All that together helps me do this with a smile on my face and a happy heart.”

Dr. Twydell is sticking by his side. He visits Todd at the hospice home. He texts him. He tries to keep Todd’s spirits up with memes.

But Dr. Twydell is crying inside, too.

“It is with great sadness that I must say goodbye to one of the most courageous and uplifting patients I have ever known,” Dr. Twydell said. “Over the last four years, Todd has been an inspiration to others with ALS as well as those around him. I am honored to be able to call him my friend.”

Saying goodbye to a friend is always difficult. Doctors, especially caring ones, are not immune to the pain.

“While, for purely selfish reasons, I don’t want to see him go, his assuredness about his decision to end his journey is one that I believe all of us would like to have at the end of our lives,” Dr. Twydell said. “We certainly have the means to keep people living past this stage of the disease, but he has decided that he does not want to enter that realm of the disease and he is at peace.”

Dr. Twydell said doctors at the hospice center “will most likely give Todd a combination of morphine, a strong pain relieving drug that also slows down his breathing rate, along with lorazepam, a cousin of Valium which reduces anxiety and also sedates him. This combination of medications will allow him to come off of his breathing assistance and, as his breathing slows down and oxygen levels drop, he will slip into unconsciousness and eventually pass away with no pain or suffering. This could take minutes to several hours or possibly days.”

No matter how long the dying process takes, it’s clear Todd’s attitude and faith will leave a lasting impression on the living.

“I think many of us could learn from Todd’s unwavering positive attitude in the face of absolute certainty of death,” Dr. Twydell said. “I am amazed by Todd and others who have acquired this disease as I see them accept it and make very difficult decisions as the disease progresses. The loss of function, autonomy, and the physical, emotional, and financial strain on theirs and their caregiver’s lives is immeasurable, and yet they have no choice but to face it. Todd has faced it with great courage and confidence.”

Dr. Twydell, his wife and kids have visited Todd in the hospice home several times. It’s meant a lot, to Todd, and to his family.

“I feel like he’s part of our family,” June said. “He’s been so great and supportive for Todd. He’s been texting little cheerful things.”

June has always been supportive of Todd. Even now. In the face of death. June’s love runs deep. Her tears flow from a well that few can understand. She gave birth to this boy. She was this baby’s first hello. Soon, she will say a final goodbye.

She was there when he took his first breath. She watched over him these last months as his breaths grew shallow and more difficult. She will be there soon, to watch him take his last.

She watched him learn to walk, and she watched in the last few years as this dreaded disease stole his walking ability.

She wants to keep him around. Her son. Her beloved son. But this is not a selfish love.

“It’s just a multitude of emotions,” June said through tears. “I’m so proud of him, yet I feel I could explode. But yet I can’t because I’m happy for him. He’s talked to me about (wanting to die) for quite a while. I guess I kind of didn’t want to listen.”

As any wise mom would do, June has asked him, repeatedly, if he is sure he is making the right decision.

‘It’s still hard’

“We’re supporting him with all of his decisions,” June said. “I’ve asked him so many times, ‘are you sure this is what you want to do?’ I have to feel in my heart that it is right. Yes, it is, I know. But it’s still hard.”

Gut-wrenching hard. The deepest bond of all, hard. The love that never dies, hard.

She trusts, even when he’s gone, that Todd will still be with her. In memories. In smiles. In the way the wind blows. In the stillness and symbolism of nature, where Todd thrived.

He’s always been at home in the woods. It’s no accident his hospice house room faces, and is surrounded by, woods. He’s watched cardinals flit about in the snow.

June has heard something special about cardinals.

“Somebody once told me they were angels,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to think something like that.”

Todd said he recently saw his first robin of the season, signifying spring.

But there will be no spring this year for Todd.

A photo clings to his bulletin board, surrounded by photos of family and friends. Healthier times. It’s a photograph of a tree outside of his hospice house sliding glass doors. The tree trunk has been injured, ravished by disease, lightning or wind perhaps. It appears as if two arms are reaching toward the heavens.

To Todd, it’s an angel, beckoning him, comforting him, there to bring him home.

He’s also finding comfort in a book that hospice staff read to him: “Imagining Heaven,” a story of people’s experiences with the afterlife. He knows he will be there soon, a main character in this book about heaven. Soon it will be real, no longer imagining.

Strength remains

In his short time at hospice, he befriended a woman across the hall. She, too, suffered from ALS. She could no longer talk. She died on March 6.

“Everyone here is saying we’re so similar,” Todd said. “Her plan was to come here to start her trip to heaven. She was happy with it and she was full of smiles, too. It’s so nice we both feel and know we are ready. That helps me even more just to be positive and be happy with the thought. It just makes me feel wonderful.”

He cries, though. He’ll miss so much in this life. His family. His son, Chase. His many friends. His doctors. His caregivers.

He chokes up as he looks over at his mom, sister and brother, silhouetted in the streaming window light. He struggles to take a deep breath. June leaves her chair and hugs her son. She lifts a cup of water and straw to Todd’s lips.

The tears roll.

Todd, June, Leisha, Ross and Set Free minister Dean Vander Mey, planned Todd’s funeral a week before Todd’s journey to heaven was to begin.

Todd picked out the songs: “Give Me Jesus When I Rise,” “Amazing Grace,” “Raise Me Up,” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

“It was nice to have a special friend like Dean to help,” Todd said. “That made me feel more comfortable and at ease.”

And Monday, he will begin easing out of life. Soon, a final “I love you,” a final smile and he will be gone, the victim of a disease that may have robbed him of his muscles, but never of his true and abiding strength.

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Comments (43)

  • Todd is a true testament that life is what you make of it. Look at everything with a full heart and find the good in all things. Until we meet again Todd. Save us a seat in that hunting blind in the field of wildlife!

    • What a moving testimony! My father also had ALS. He actually diagnosed himself and later confirmed it with an MD. It was so difficult as I was a Daddy’s girl. And he was a true athlete at 60!! He looked in his 40’s! He choose to have control and to just let ALS take it’s course. He was also very brave. Bless you Todd and your most wonderful family!!

    • Todd’s testimony to his faith is so strong and powerful just like all of ours should be and is for many of us. This month marks me being cancer-free for 20 years now and I am so very thankful for every single day our good Lord gives me. Not a one is taken for grated or not celebrated. Bless you Todd on your journey to heaven. I always imagine how wonderful it will be meeting God face to face and climbing into his lap with his arms stretched out around me embracing me as one of his children just like he will Todd. Our faith is so powerful and releases all our worldly burdens, pain and suffering and promises JOY, comfort and everlasting PEACE.

    • I am inspired by the journey and decisions of this courageous man. And the caring compassionate love of his family and the deep listening and shared decision making of his physicians especially Dr. Paul Twydell. This gives me hope that our health care workers are listening to patients and following their wishes even to the end. This is what end of life decision making is all about. I work with patients with Huntington Disease another progressive neurological disease and this is inspiration to me. Thank you for sharing your poignant story with us. I wish you well on your journey with the love and support of your family, friends and medical staff at your side. May you be free from suffering and filled with peace and joy in your new life.

  • Todd, I have had the pleasure of getting to know you through our Health Beat series these past two years. I hope you know what an impact you have made on this world with your positive attitude, faith and deep wisdom. I will remember you most for your smile and the light of God you exude. Thank you for letting us be part of your life and for allowing us to tell your remarkable story. May peace be with you and your family always. Best wishes, Cheryl Welch, Health Beat editor

  • Praying for all of you… Remarkable attitude and that you are still smiling. Todd, you are an amazing person. Heaven will have a special angel for sure. I’m happy you will be whole again. Keep smiling
    Pam Vander Veen -Segard

  • Todd my friend ,you are a special man , you keep smiling in the face of death ! Even though we weren’t close the last 40 years I have some real fond memories my friend , running against each other on the track field climbing the rope to the ceiling at south elementary, play dodge ball at south. We shared one special thing though we came into this world on the same day and same year! That I will never forget!!
    Your amazing strength and love for the Lord , your faith and courage are in matched my Friend, peace be with you on your next journey, I know wel’ll see each other again in Heaven. Goodbye for now . Your friend John Tilma..

  • What an amazing, beautiful man. Sending love, strength, and peace to Todd, and his friends and family. God Bless You on your journey.

  • Thank you for sharing this touching report. I feel especially touched by this as I have taken care of a close friend with ALS. He has sense moved his earthly body to his heavenly body as well. It is never easy to say goodbye but the assurance of seeing them again with a renewed body is worth it all. Thank you again.

  • Dear Todd ,June , Leisha.Ross and families. I just read Todd’s journey to heaven thure so many tears in my eyes…. your courage and faith amaze me… you are all a inspiration to everyone!!! I will be keeping you all in my thoughts and prayers….love you June and Leisha…. take care❤… Arla Hop

  • This hits true to home for me. My brother passed away from ALS 2 years ago. It was a long and courageous journey. 26 years worth. My brother also tried to always have a smile on his face, although very difficult at times. God bless both of you in your eternal life. You are truly amazing and beautiful.

  • Never met Todd but after reading his uplifting story of courage and strength I can see how blessed he really was. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and all of his family for peace and strength thru this difficult time. Thanks for sharing his story

  • Praying for you Todd. I’m so glad you know our friend Jesus!! Peace my friend until we meet up in heaven again! What will you be doing in heaven? Where shall I look for you? Love you! Jeanine Bieber Keenan

  • Your strong faith is evident and such a witness to so many. Thank you for sharing this poignant article testifying how a believer puts his trust in Jesus. My sympathies to those who love you that have to be unselfish and let you go from their presence. God Bless you as you make your journey home.

  • Well done, Todd.
    God speed.
    Thank you for showing the rest of us what courage and grace look like.

  • I have never met you Todd but you are my brother. It is with love that I wish you peace. You are an inspiration to me to live my life intentionally. Thank you.

  • Thank you Todd and family for sharing your testimony. I met you once in the office and watched as you and Dr Twydell together did the ice bucket challenge outside of the office. It brought laughter and tears to us all. Your faith in God and His promises are a blessing. You have inspired many and educated us as well. Thank you my friend. Go in peace Todd, your crown awaits you and your heavenly wings.

  • Thank you for sharing Todds story. What a true testimony of strength, faith and courage. Prayers of comfort, strength and peace during this difficult time.
    May God bless you on you journey home.

  • Todd, June & family- what a beautiful testimony your life is Todd. I have fond memories of you coming around to visit our house when I was a kid 🙂
    My thoughts & prayers are with you!
    Bobbi Rae Newhof (Bob Schipper’s daughter)

  • Todd, you have fought the fight and the race here on earth is almost finished. You are inspiring to me and so many others by your unfailing optimism in the face of ALS and it’s challenges!
    I wish you the peace of Christ as your journey on this earth dwindles down.
    June, Ross and Leisha and Chase, my prayers of comfort are with you all . This is tough stuff to go through. You are an amazing family ! So glad you were and are all able to help Todd these years dealing with ALS.
    I may not have seen you since moving away from Lucas dr. But I have great memories of the gang of kids that I grew up with there, including all of you. It was a great time and place to grow up!
    Marlene Lucas Lehnert

  • Dearest Todd, out love and prayers go out to you and your family, god speed to you on your new journey into the heavenly kingdom much love always and many prayers to all Dick and Sally Cryderman

  • Hi Todd, you are showing us what it’s like to live, by sharing what it’s like to die. The road you travel we will all be on soon, only a Man of God would share his story so our path is smoother when we come to meet you on that same path. I know you’ll meet us there.

    Praying for you all week👏🏻

    Gary bastien

  • Thank you for sharing your story Todd. My mother also had A.L.S., and she too fought it with strength, courage, grace and faith. May God wrap His loving arms of grace, mercy and comfort around you and your family at this time.

  • Todd, you are an amazing Christian who believes in life after death. Your story is a testament to us all that in Christ anything is possible. Your faith, your love for your family and friends are remarkable. I hope when I come to the end of my life, I can have the positiveness of knowing I’m going to heaven too. God Bless You.

  • I know a family member and have followed Todd’s Journey for a while now his faith and strength amaze me and the love his family has for him and he for them its a fairy tale story everyone wishes they could end it like he’s chosen with all the love possible to get and receive. He’s left a legacy of love for all to learn from. God bless you on your journey home Todd.

    • You have the bravery of a warrior in Christ. You always had that smile and have joy in now smiling brightly in heaven. You are an angel already and God has a glorious welcoming planned for you. God bless all of you and we know God’s peace will fill you. Faith Hospice is a blessing we have been given. Dr. Mulder is a gifted physician as is the devoted staff.

      Do not stand at my grave and weep,
      I am not there… I do not sleep.
      I am the thousand winds that blow…
      I am the diamond glints on snow…
      I am the sunlight on ripened grain…
      I am the gentle autumn rain.
      When you waken in the morning’s hush,
      I am the swift uplifting rush
      Of gentle birds in circling flight…
      I am the soft star that shines at night.
      Do not stand at my grave and cry—
      I am not there… I did not die.
      * * *

      God bless you all with peace.

  • Todd,I can remember the day back a year and half ago or so,when you and Leisha came up to the carlot,with the van.I was so amazed with your personality.A bigger than life smile.It was a pleasure to get to meet you,and really understand alittle about ALS.Your family is absolutely one of the closest tight knit family’s that I have have personally ever seen,and the support from all.And Leisha,I have witnessed the love and caring she has for her brother,what a special gift to have such a special sister.Your strengths and courage are just amazing. As you start your journey to heaven,the legacy of your life remains on earth,for us all to keep tucked away deep in our hearts.Also Todd,June,Leisha,Ross thank you so much for sharing Todds story with us.You certainly are one of the nicest human beings that I have ever met.My heart goes out to you and your family.Through these next steps you take to be freed from all pain.It was my pleasure to get to have been someone that got to know you from years ago ,and then at the carlot.My prayers will be with you and your special family.Till we meet again someday Todd.I will never forget you and the smiles and laughter you have brought over the years to so many faces.May the lord lift you up,and dwell in the house of the Lord for eternity.You will be missed. SINCERELY KURT MUILENBURG

  • Alward family, I remember you from Burlingame Church. I was a little younger than Leisha but I remember your family. My prayers are with you all and what a wonderful loving family you have. I wish the peace that only God can supply be with you.

  • There is nothing more than can be said. Todd’so life and legacy say it all. There is no doubt that there will be celebrating in heaven when this special man is standing in front of our Heavenly Father.

  • EDITOR’S NOTE: We have been informed that Todd has completed his journey. Farewell to a wonderful soul and best wishes are extended from the Spectrum Health Beat family to Todd’s family. Todd, you’ll forever be remembered by your smile.

  • I had the pleasure of meeting Todd many years ago. He was such an amazing kind man then. This truly is an inspiring story although it doesn’t surprise me that he would leave this world with such a mark and such a smile on his face. I am truly sorry for your loss.

  • Very inspiring story. I assume he’s at Faith Hospice at Trillium Woods where my wiife died last year after a 17-month battle with both triple-negative breast and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The staff at Faith Hospice went beyond the call of duty and helped us tolerate the 8 days my wife spent there. I hope to live to see the day a cure is found for ALS and other incurable diseases. I wish I had his Faith.

    • I am so sorry for your loss, Jim. Yes, Todd was at Faith Hospice at Trillium Woods. My hope is the same as yours…

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