This Incredible Story Will Make You Rethink Impossible


Rethink Impossible

Sometimes a story comes around that is so inspiring that it makes you question just what you’re actually capable of accomplishing in your own life. This is one of those stories…

In 1984, Augusto and Michaela Odone took their six year old son to a doctor because he was stumbling, becoming bad-tempered and not feeling well. After a few tests doctors diagnosed their son, Lorenzo, with a rare disease called adrenoleukodystrophy.

There was no treatment for the disease. Doctors said little Lorenzo would continue losing his balance, go blind and deaf until eventually dying of aspiration. He wasn’t expected to live longer than two years after diagnosis.

Augusto and Michaela consulted several doctors and specialists about the disease, but everyone said the same thing: there’s no known cure or treatment; it’s hopeless.

But Augusto was a fighter and refused to accept such a terrible situation without expending every ounce of energy he had to overcome it.

If no cure existed, he would just discover one on his own.

Unfortunately, he faced some huge obstacles.

  • Augusto only had a high school level understanding in science and medicine.
  • He had to learn everything about the disease from scratch. That includes things like how degradative enzymes cross membranes and how long-chain fatty acids accumulate.
  • After learning about it, he had to discover a cure.
  • And do it all in less than two years so he can give it to Lorenzo.

When they told doctors and researchers about the plan, they heard the same thing:

“It’s impossible. It can’t be done.”

Turning Impossible into Reality

By day, Augusto worked as an economist at the World Bank. At night, he scoured research papers and medical journals from the National Institute of Health. He worked dauntlessly and put all his effort into figuring the disease out.

He finally got an insight from an unlikely source: the oils he used to make spaghetti carbonara. He reasoned that the oils might soak up the deadly acids before it hurt Lorenzo’s nervous system.

Medical researchers thought he was crazy. After all, it’s absolutely unheard of for complete amateurs in medicine to develop a cure to a complex neurological disease that professionals had been studying for decades.

But when they tested the oil on Lorenzo, it made a huge impact on his condition. While it didn’t cure him completely, it did halt the progress enough for Lorenzo to live an additional twenty years when he died from an accident – not the disease.

It took until 2005 for doctors to publish a study to finally prove the treatment actually works – which is now known as Lorenzo’s Oil (which is also the name of a movie about their accomplishment.). In that time, Augusto and Michaela had given it to hundreds of other people and saved lives all over the world.

The Big Lessons In This Story

It all sounds so impossible, doesn’t it?

Someone with only a high school understanding of science studying enough about a rare disease to find a treatment for it? And in less than two years?

We know it’s not impossible though. It happened.

I have to admit that if I had heard about Augusto and Michaela’s plan to find a cure to a disease with little to no knowledge about medicine, I would have assumed it was impossible too. It’s just so far outside of the norm that it’s too easy to dismiss it away.

But it should all give us pause to think about what we consider “impossible” in our own lives.

It seems so easy to define what’s possible and what isn’t. We tend to use our perceptions of things we’ve seen before to help guide us in what can actually be done.

But defining what’s impossible is not as clear as we’d like to think. Perceptions are largely based upon experience. That leaves a big gap of knowledge about experiences that haven’t been tested yet.

The Odones went into that unknown area of experience where no one had gone before. Because it had never been done before, people were ready to dismiss it away as “impossible”. But it’s important to test our perceptions and assumptions – many times they’re wrong.

If Augusto and Michaela had simply accepted their situation, Lorenzo would have died much earlier in his life. The only reason they found this cure was due to Augusto’s determination and willingness to fight.

Make no mistake about it. What Augusto and Michaela did was a long-shot – a huge long-shot. But that’s the strange and beautiful thing about life, sometimes the long-shots pay off.
photo credit: Hartwig HKD

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  1. That’s an incredible story. That just goes to show when you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything.

    I’m sure if he told doctors his plan they would’ve just laughed at him but look what he discovered. That’s truly amazing.

    Really inspiring.


    • Apparently they did laugh at him. Well, they didn’t really laugh, that’s unprofessional. They did tell him that what he was trying to do wouldn’t work because it was impossible. But he did it anyway. It just goes to show that sometimes long-shots pay off. Sometimes impossible isn’t as clear as we might think.

  2. I saw that movie. It was pretty amazing – it shows you what dedication can do. And then again, it shows you the type of dedication that is sometimes necessary – because they were tireless!

    • It’s definitely a story of dedication too. I mean, have you ever read a medical research report from the National Institute of Health (NIH). I have and they’re incredibly complex and dry. His dedication was really inspiring too considering that he must have known how unlikely it was to work. But he persevered anyway.

      In case you’re wondering, I’ve read NIH material for my wife who is getting a PhD in Nursing. I’ve had to read articles to help her out with an assignment once.

  3. Wow, this is fascinating. I’ve never heard this story before.

    I think a lot of what we think is “impossible” is just us self doubting. We think that other people can do these things, but we don’t have the (whatever skill, education, knowledge, etc) to do it, too.

    • That’s true. It’s easier to dismiss something away as “impossible” when it’s actually just difficult. Sometimes self-doubt can just talk you out of even trying. It could also be failure-avoidance – after all, if you don’t try, you can’t fail.

  4. Wow!!! Just incredible. Such an amazingly inspiring example of someone finding it in themselves to redefine the parameters of what’s possible. I think we often have a habit of sinking into the lock-step thinking of what’s around us, it takes real passion and just straight up cojones to break that internal barrier and step outside the consensus of popular opinion. How did you come across this story?

    • Augusto Odone died recently and I read his obituary in The Economist. The article really inspired me. Apparently he saved hundreds of people’s lives and started a foundation around the disease. He’s quite incredible.

  5. Great story. Just goes to show that what we decide, our attitude, changes everything.

    • Finding the right attitude is important. If he had just given up right away, he would never have found the disease. Because he didn’t give up, he changed his son’s life.

  6. Awesome story, Steve. Inspired my love and determination, the world’s the limit. This is like the story of Rocky or another improbably athlete. People who are told that they can’t do it or see no hope just dig deeper and find the courage to find the answer. We may not have a child in our own lives with a disease but we each have a situation in our life that seems impossible. This story is a good reminder to keep going even when there’s no hope or no easy solutions in sights. Thanks for the inspiration and kick of motivation! If this family can do this, what can we do??

    • What can we do too? That’s a good question to ask. This should be a reminder that we shouldn’t give up too easily or back down because something seems impossible. It might not actually be impossible.

      It’s just like Rocky. No one took him seriously as a contender, but he worked hard enough to make people change their mind about him. It’s very inspiring; it makes me wonder what we’re all capable of doing.

  7. Inspiring indeed.

    One of the most inspiring stories I’ve read lately is that of Louis Zamperini, a guy who survived through:

    -Being a prisoner of war in several brutal internment camps
    -Being stuck on a raft for 30+ days on the ocean without food while being shot at and having sharks swimming around him

    And more.

    • That’s crazy. Louis sure went though a lot. I’ll have to check out more of his story.

    • He, he, he, have you heard of Victor Herman? That was the thoughest man on this planet. Google him and you’ll be impressed.

      • Since we’re on a roll, I’ve got another inspiring person to throw into the mix: Norman Borlaug. Check out his story. He’s probably the only person in history who was credited with saving over 1 billion lives in his liftetime.

  8. The majority of us definitely put a limit on our potential, or even what’s possible for other people. Especially when it comes to a subject that we know little about. The experts know what they’re doing, right?

    Love this story, Steve. Thanks for sharing it with us !

    • The experts should know what they’re doing. And, to be honest, they had every right to say it was impossible. Knowledgeable people had been looking at the disease for years. Maybe Augusto had an advantage because his motivation was higher stakes. Motivation is rarely stronger when it comes to terms of life or death.

  9. Steve,
    Inspiring story.
    When you have a child dying, you will do anything to save their life….you have to know in your heart you have tried everything imaginable. When you can’t, all you can do is try to do the same for someone else.
    A quote you have shared in your other writings:
    by Cadet Maxim, USMA, West Point, NY
    “Risk more than others think is safe.
    Care more than others think is wise.
    Dream more than others think is practical.
    Expect more than others think is possible. ”
    and other quotes very similar to this – but, the real keys are:
    Once you take that risk and realize your goals – nothing can stop you. You have to know where you are going. Keep focused. Life just throws you curves.
    My response to someone telling me it is impossible, that only fuels my strength to care, dream and expect more!
    Thanks for sharing.

    • I imagine that Augusto is like me. He wants to know that he did everything possible and not to give up without a good fight. If you can take some action, even if it’s highly improbable to work out, you have to just go for it.

  10. What a gem of story Steve! Thanks a lot.

    My reflection: people often ask in anger “Why did it happen?”, often blaming God like some tyrant. In case of Lorenzo the answer is simple: to save people’s lives.

    • Rather than blaming others, he took it up and tried to do something about it. It just shows that blaming others won’t get you far, but taking action on a problem can do so much more.

  11. What a great story Steve and example why what seems impossible are really not (most of the time). I think it takes creativity and thinking outside the box to solve the problems that have not yet been solved. Great post!

    • Yeah, I can’t imagine a more outside the box solution than spaghetti cabonara. When he told doctors where he got the inspiration for his medicine, they must have looked at him funny.

  12. Love it! Nothing is impossible. If something hasn’t been done yet, it isn’t impossible, it just hasn’t been figured out yet.

    The thing that interests me the most is the idea of an outsider solving the problem while the insiders didn’t or couldn’t. It’s like when a new employee starts at a business and has recommendations for changes. Too many times we don’t see issues or shortcomings when we are in the business. Having a new person that thinks outside the box and brings new ideas is priceless.

    • There is a huge benefit to having a new perspective. Sometimes when you look at something too long, you start to see it in the same way. Getting that new perspective can lead to breakthroughs. Maybe when they combined that with the huge motivation to get it done, they could find a way to a treatment.

  13. A great story. And the way you tell it is as inspirational as the film.

    Another amazing story that inspired me to be the best I can is of Jon Morrow:

    After reading it you cannot help the need to life as fully as you can. And try to reach your full potential.

  14. Wow, that’s pretty amazing. I think we all have the potential to achieve amazing things if we have a strong enough motivation or “why” to take action.

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