Read about the writer, Ellie David.
Becoming a Profile in Courage
Dennis was curious about everything. He loved talking and got energy from being around other people. He was the ultimate people person,” says John Gentry, his friend of 30 years. “He enjoyed people, and people enjoyed him.”
Even when Dennis came to Bailey-Boushay House in 2010 for end-of-life care, his desire to connect with others never faded.
His life changed course on Dec. 6, 2003. That’s the day he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is an incurable neurological disorder that eventually paralyzes all muscles in the body. At the same time, ALS leaves the mind clear and fully aware.
“I’d say his mental faculties were even heightened,” John says. “He maintained the most consistent positive outlook I think I’ve ever seen. He learned to accept things as the disease progressed.”
John Gentry describes Dennis as the complex person he was: an enthusiastic extrovert and thinker, a procrastinator, beloved “Uncle Dennis” to the Gentry kids, and a man who struggled at times with binge drinking. After a long career selling radio advertising, Dennis chose to drive a cab to keep working as long as his body allowed.
“Dennis was a very bright guy,” John says, “and his knowledge was almost Renaissance quality.”
Dennis embraced the healing power of play and companionship at Bailey-Boushay House.
“He dove into all the activities,” John says. Group meals, movies, outings, celebrations: Dennis was there in his motorized wheelchair, smiling and talking and having fun.
A group visit to a natural history museum drew a rave review. “It was great,” Dennis told a friend later, “to be with everyone in an environment that’s exciting and totally away from our health problems.”
At least twice a month he got himself over to Kirkland, via Access van, for lunch and wide-ranging conversation at the Brown Bag Café with John and his wife, Jo.
Dennis gave back to the community, too. Frail as he was in his last year, he volunteered for a public role in the Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraising event for MD and ALS patient support and research.
Ever the people person, he also used his own story to educate. At a Bailey-Boushay staff training, Dennis helped nurses understand what having ALS is like for him and other patients. And at a meeting of the Virginia Mason Health System board of directors, he described his life at Bailey-Boushay.
“Both groups were amazed at his candor and sense of humor,” remembers Brian Knowles, Bailey-Boushay’s executive director. “His gratitude touched hearts when he told the Virginia Mason board: ‘I would have been dead by now without Bailey-Boushay. They have given me life.”’
The three words on Dennis’s gravestone — “Dennis defined courage”— are a tribute to his spirit in living with the relentless losses of ALS.
His friend says: “He once told me, ‘John, I think this disease has made me a far better person than I ever was without the disease.’”
When repeating those words, John shakes his head in wonder: “Isn’t that an amazing thing for him to say?”
Dennis Kennedy died on September 10, 2011, at Bailey-Boushay House.