If they needed an early-morning ride to the airport, would you give it? If they had a bad day, would you do whatever you could to brighten it up?
If they wanted to take a 500-mile trek from France to Spain in a wheelchair, would you push them? (Record scratch.)
If you’re Justin Skeesuck and his best friend Patrick Gray, the answer is yes. Been there, done that, and wrote the book – literally.
Many would point to the year Justin turned 16 and the car accident that nearly cost him his life as the starting point of this story.
But maybe it began long before that accident when Justin and Patrick were born just 36 hours apart. When the two of them became part of each other’s lives so early on that they had never known any different. When Justin would face challenges that would forever change the course of his life - and Patrick’s.
After miraculously surviving the rollover crash, it seemed like Justin had made it through the worst of it. Six months later, though, the real journey began.
“I noticed weakness in my foot,” he told us. “It wasn’t even pain or numbness, really. It was just flopping around and not working. At first, doctors thought it was a pinched nerve from the accident, but that theory didn’t last long.”
By age 18, his condition worsened to the point that Justin required foot orthotics to help him walk. By 20, doctors told him he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and told him he had just four years to live. But less than two years later, that diagnosis, and prognosis, changed.
In an extremely rare occurrence, Justin’s car accident triggered a progressive condition called multifocal acquired motor axonopathy or MAMA. At the time of this writing, about 14 people in the United States have this condition. Fourteen.
Although the exact cause of the disease is unknown, it’s suspected that MAMA may be an autoimmune disease and that the immune system attacks the motor neurons which control muscles. Over time, the weakness can progress or worsen.
While that diagnosis didn’t come with the shortened life expectancy doctors first gave him, it wasn’t exactly welcome news. Thankfully, he had two people in his life standing right by his side: his future wife, Kirstin, and Patrick.
(Once Justin’s mobility began to be more severely impacted, Patrick bought a four-foot slab of purpleheart wood and spent hours in his garage with a jigsaw and hand-sanding tools, fashioning a beautiful cane for his best friend. It became a cherished symbol of their lifelong friendship.)
“With a progressive disease, you have to change a lot of things,” Justin said. “The ripple effect impacts everyone. But I could tell you many stories about people helping me along the way.”
One of those happened on a trip abroad in 2013. Justin and Kirstin decided to visit Venice, Italy, a city full of bridges, steps, and cobblestone streets – not exactly the best location for a wheelchair, which Justin was using full-time by that point.
“We decide to get on a boat, and the driver pulled up level with the dock so I could roll my power chair right onto the deck,” Justin told us. “But when we came back to get off, the dock was like three feet above us.”
“My wheelchair weighs about 375 pounds, and I’m about 200, so you’re looking at nearly 600 pounds of weight. But about 8 or 9 guys on the boat saw me, picked me up, and put me on the dock.”
“Do you see what I mean about people helping me?” Justin asked. “Those little moments can’t take it all away, and I’d be lying if I told you I don’t wish I could get up out of this chair. But when you’re vulnerable and let people in, that’s when humanity can flourish.”
That trip also sparked an idea. And Justin knew just the person to call.
“I called Patrick and asked him if he would do the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage leading to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain…and you can’t do it with anything motorized.”
What lengths would you go to for your best friend?
Patrick was in. “I’ll push you,” he told Justin.
In 2014, the two of them set off from France with a film crew in tow and headed due west. Every day, they woke up and walked roughly 15 miles.
The 34-day, 500-mile hike across mountains, deserts, hills, and valleys was arduous, a painstaking and blistering trek that was unrelenting in its intensity.
When that MAMA diagnosis finally came, Justin’s life was forever changed. And the ripple effect of a progressive disease impacted Patrick, too. This trek was more than an adventure from France to Spain.
It was poetically symbolic of all Justin and Patrick had been through together. The peaks and valleys, rough patches, and smooth trails that formed a lifelong friendship – a brotherhood.
When the pair finally crossed onto the stone floor of the cathedral, they paused in the light from the centuries-old arches, let out their breath, and smiled. “I’ll push you.”
Since then, Justin has gone on to complete the 500-mile pilgrimage a few more times, including taking others with disabilities on their own trek of the last 70km in 2019. Two other accessible trips followed, with two more scheduled in 2024.
“We now have a waitlist of 650 people,” Justin said. Many will likely have their own Patricks in tow, the people who relentlessly stand by their side through all of life’s peaks and valleys.
Initially, his love for travel and sightseeing is what led Justin to Chive Charities. He was hoping for an iBot wheelchair – the same version donors like you helped secure for Sydni – that might allow him to continue seeing more of the world and impacting people with his story.
But after his 2010 wheelchair-accessible van began to have major issues, including the motorized ramp no longer operating correctly, Justin asked if we might be able to help him replace his vehicle instead.
When Justin and Patrick share their story, they often talk about community and what it takes to work together for the greater good. “None of us have gotten where we are without people pouring into us,” he said.
We couldn’t agree more. For Justin and the nearly 600 recipients like him that you’ve help support over the last decade, we can’t thank our community enough. Just like Patrick, you’re right beside those who need it most when they need it most.
They’re all on a trek of their own. There are dozens of Veterans, military families, first responders and rare medical families waiting to hear from Chive Charities. For many, they don’t have a Patrick in their corner when times get tough. But they’ve got YOU. They’re just looking for an extra push. Become part of it and DONATE HERE.
P.S. You can see the trailer for Justin and Patrick’s incredible documentary right HERE.