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Determined to succeed: Alex Lucas, accomplished pianist and athlete, overcame rare disease as an infant

August 3, 2010
By CHRISTOPHER DIEM Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - Alex Lucas's fingers worked frantically over the piano keys as Chopin's "Grand Polonaise" rose from the depths of the instrument.

Lucas, 19, recently performed a number of Chopin's works at a piano concert at Kaufman Auditorium in Marquette. The event celebrated Chopin's 200th birthday and raised over $2,000 for the Graveraet fountain restoration project.

It's complicated music, according to Robert Buchkoe, Lucas's piano teacher for 14 years.

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Alex Lucas perfoms at the Kaufman Auditorium, playing a musical tribute to Chopin. Lucas has been playing the piano since the age of 5. (Journal photos by Danielle Lehto)

"It's pretty much virtuoso music, like a concert pianist would be playing," Buchkoe said, adding he's had few students that could tackle music of that caliber.

Lucas is also an accomplished athlete and has competed in a variety of sports including baseball, hockey, soccer, basketball, football, wrestling, tennis and golf. His vitality is all the more striking considering he came perilously close to dying of a rare disease before he was a year old.

When he was just eight months old he was airlifted to the Lower Peninsula by emergency medical personnel. No one knew why, but his muscles were shutting down one by one. Marsha Lucas, Alex's mother, was on the flight from Marquette to Detroit.

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When I left him in the helicopter I was standing there just crying because I thought maybe that was the last time I'd see him alive. And it was just heartbreaking.

- Marsha Lucas, mother

"It was a really stormy day and we'd been in (Marquette General Hospital) and he was getting worse and worse and the neurologist that looked at him said 'We've got to move him out of here right now because he's not going to make it,'" she said.

The plan was to fly him down to Detroit and then transport him via ambulance to C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor. But as the flight neared Detroit, emergency workers told Marsha Lucas her son would not survive the ambulance ride to Ann Arbor. They suggested a helicopter transport him to the children's hospital. There was one problem. There was not enough room on the helicopter for Marsha Lucas.

"When I left him in the helicopter I was standing there just crying because I thought maybe that was the last time I'd see him alive. And it was just heartbreaking," Marsha Lucas said.

On the helicopter flight to Ann Arbor, Alex Lucas stopped breathing. He was kept alive with CPR until connected to a ventilator in the hospital. His heart never stopped working, however, and it kept him alive as he was fed through intranasal tubes and his condition stabilized. Marsha Lucas, who rode to the hospital in the ambulance from Detroit, watched over her son as he recovered.

Alex Lucas had infant botulism, a potentially life-threatening disease caused by spores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. In cases of infant botulism, the spores are ingested and colonize the intestine, releasing toxin as the bacterial cells die. Older children and adults can ingest these spores, which are found in nature, with no problem because other forms of bacteria in their intestines don't allow the spores to germinate. Infants are susceptible because they have not developed that bacteria needed to fend off the spores and the pH in their intestines allow the spores to germinate and grow.

The toxin produced by the bacteria blocks the signal from the nerve to the muscle. Even though the brain may be sending signals to breathe, swallow, cry or move, the muscles won't respond. The disease is rare - there are only 80 to 100 diagnosed cases of infant botulism in the United States every year.

Eventually, the bacteria and toxins were displaced and Alex Lucas began to recover his mobility. Because he was still developing his nerves and muscles when he was afflicted with the disease, doctors were not sure if he would have all of his muscular control. As he grew older he developed more slowly than other children. His mind was sharp but it took longer than usual for him to crawl, to walk and to speak.

After fully developing, he flourished, perhaps making up for the time he lost due to the botulism. Influenced by his family, he showed an early interest in music and sports.

Even though Lucas doesn't remember his battle with botulism, the effects of the disease have had an interesting role in his life.

When he was 10 years old he injured his ankle. Only experiencing occasional pain, he continued to play baseball and soccer and do the things that most 10-year-old boys usually do.

Two months after his injury, he couldn't get one of his hockey skates to fit so he went to see a doctor. X-rays revealed his ankle had been broken in the injury. Doctors marveled that he had been walking and running on a broken ankle for two months with little to no pain.

A similar situation occurred two years after that with a broken bone in his foot.

"Sometimes I don't feel as much pain as I probably should ... we think that has to do with the possible lasting effects of the botulism," Lucas said.

As he grew up he showed a fierce determination to do whatever he set his mind to.

"He has the attitude that if puts the work in he can achieve anything, and I think he will," Marsha Lucas said.

Sports and music are equally important to him. He said music helps with coordination in sports and vice versa.

"The piano, for instance - I have to use all five of my fingers a lot and it takes a lot of hand-eye coordination and thinking. That really helps develop your motor skills which helps with coordination in sports," he said.

His recent concert allowed him to play the works of Chopin, a composer he greatly admires.

"I saw the movie 'The Pianist' and a lot of the songs in that movie are Chopin. At the end, in the credits, they play what's called 'The Grand Polonaise.' When I saw that I said, 'Well, I have to learn that.' It was a pretty tall order. It's a very complicated, big piece ... and so as I was learning (Chopin's) songs I really fell in love with his music and I just wanted to learn more, and more and more of it. So I ended up learning enough to have my own Chopin concert," he said.

He also plays guitar in a local rock band called Nothing Less.

Lucas remained modest when talking about a possible future in music.

"A career in music is very difficult, especially for pianists. Concert pianists are unbelievable, you have to be really spectacular to do something like that. It's not something where I'm going to put all my eggs in that basket. But music is something I'm going to keep playing as long as I can, and sports," he said.

Marsha Lucas credits the care he received at MGH, the emergency flight crew and C.S. Mott Children's Hospital for saving her son's life. She said seeing him become an accomplished pianist and athlete are beyond words and a tribute to his persistence, work ethic and dedication.

"You can definitely overcome anything and pursue what you want to pursue," Alex Lucas said.

Christopher Diem can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. His e-mail address is



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