Shutdown leaves DODEA educator in limbo as he battles ALS
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — For Jim Hashman, the timing of the government shutdown could not have been worse.
A long-time educator with Defense Department schools, Hashman was diagnosed two months ago with what is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, a terminal neurodegenerative condition, that for him, has progressed rapidly.
“I’m right in the middle of applying for a disability retirement,” said Hashman, a former music teacher who currently serves as a curriculum coordinator for Department of Defense Education Activity schools in the Pacific at their Okinawa, Japan offices.
At 52, Hashman is too young to retire outright. He mailed his disability retirement application just days before the partial government shutdown took effect last week. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been furloughed, leaving him wondering when his application will be processed.
Until that paperwork is processed, Hashman, who had hoped to return to the States to begin treatment immediately, is in limbo.
“As long as our government is closed, my paperwork can’t even be looked at,” Hashman said in a telephone interview Friday. “What I really need is to get back [to the States] and in the hands of teams of doctors who specialize in treating this disease. There is no cure but they can improve my quality of life and prolong my life.”
Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel announce Saturday that DOD civilians will be called back to work soon, although it’s unclear exactly when that will be.
It’s also not known how that news affects Hashman’s case. DODEA’s human resources department sent out Hashman’s packet to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
“While civilian retirement processing is not completely on hold due to the government shutdown, there will be delays in processing applications received after Sept. 30,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, spokesman in the Defense Department office of Personnel and Readiness. “For special cases that require immediate attention, we will make every effort to expedite processing.”
Personnel Management officials could not be reached on Friday. An answering machine message said that they were furloughed due to the shutdown.
Debilitating diseaseAmyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing a loss of muscle control. In the final stages of the disease, patients may experience complete paralysis, which can affect swallowing and breathing.
Since he was diagnosed on Aug. 9, the once avid runner and pianist has all but lost function in his left hand and has trouble walking without a limp as his body has slowly begun to betray him. He can no longer play piano, something he has done his entire life.
He and his wife, Marcia, ran a half-marathon in February and another in April. After one of their runs, he knew something was wrong. His muscles didn’t seem to recover. They cramped and he experienced spasms that did not stop, Marcia Hashman recalled.
After months of tests, Jim Hashman was told it could be ALS.
Hashman was already feeling the effects when he and Marcia climbed Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest peak, in July. He wept when he reached the summit. It was the hardest thing he has ever done in his life, he said. He battled his body and an unrelenting foe in ALS. It was a triumph against the disease and a diagnosis he somehow knew was coming.
“We did it in spite of the ALS,” he said. “Even though you get devastating news, you can press on.”
He got the official diagnosis after a further battery of tests a few weeks later. Patients with ALS generally live 3-5 years, Marcia Hashman said.
Support from students and colleagues, past and present, has poured in.
“Mr Hashman...my mentor in choir...the one who inspired me to soar with my voice...my prayers and thoughts go out to you. God Bless!,” wrote one former student on his Facebook page.
Hashman has taught and worked as an administrator in DODEA schools for 24 years, in Panama, and for the last 16 in Japan.
“This is such a heartbreaking situation,” said DODEA-Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff. “Jim is both a friend and colleague and one of the finest educators I’ve ever worked with.”
Hashman wants to go home to start treatment at the ALS clinic at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. He wants to spend time with his two college-aged children and family in the States before he begins to lose his facilities. He also wants to fight the disease as he did Mount Fuji, with the help of specialists and the promise of emerging medications and treatments.
There are good days and bad days, Hashman said.
“We can’t get home,” Marcia Hashman said. “The stress of it all is quite hard to imagine… Last week, I was a mess.”
“The government shutdown affects people in a way that most people can’t understand,” Jim Hashman said. “It’s not just parks and monuments, it’s people who have worked for the government their whole lives and need something. I need to get back and be with my kids and family while I’m functional.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report.