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