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Sports helped Butzlaff deal with tragedy

Anna Butzlaff lost fiance to ALS in fall

Anna Butzlaff was fiance Tony Turner's primary caretaker until he died in October as a result of ALS. He was diagnosed with the disease in March.

Anna Butzlaff was fiance Tony Turner's primary caretaker until he died in October as a result of ALS. He was diagnosed with the disease in March. Photo By Anna Butzlaff

Dec. 23, 2012

I received an email the other day from Anna Butzlaff and she asked me to share its contents with you. Butzlaff, a 2008 graduate of Brookfield Central, played soccer, basketball and ran cross country for the Lancers. She went on to play soccer at the University of Memphis, graduating in May of this year with a degree in communications and Magna Cum Laude honors.

She didn't know it at the time, but the lessons she learned on the athletic field, would help her through a tragedy this past year.

As she entered her last semester of college she thought she had her whole life planned. Then she learned her fiancé, Tony Turner, was diagnosed in March 2012 with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

Turner passed away eight months later, on Oct. 21.

"My world was turned upside down on Oct. 20, when Tony asked me to 'let him go,' " said Butzlaff, who was his primary caregiver and medical power of attorney. "We took that night to pray and the next day at Horizon Hospice, Tony was fully sedated and I removed his breathing mask."

For 15 minutes, he was still alive without his breathing machine.

"During that time, I held him in my arms, while he gazed peacefully into my eyes," she said. "The love of my life, died staring into my eyes. In the moment that Tony took his last breath - at 6:45 p.m. on Oct. 21 - my life was defined. I didn't know it until weeks later, but now it has become clearer than ever."

Lessons for healing found in sports

For a little over a month after Turner passed, Butzlaff sat at their apartment and did absolutely nothing.

"It was hard to move, hard to think and at times even hard to breathe," she said. "I cried every night, never slept and completely isolated myself."

Butzlaff finally decided that she needed to move out of their apartment and start fresh. She flew to Miami on Dec. 1 and accepted a position at a law firm, where she will be making the move permanent after Christmas.

"My mind is clear," Butzlaff said. "I feel liberated and my heart is slowly healing."

That is when she realized that sports saved her life. No matter how many people she pushed away, she said no one ever gave up on her.

"My association with sports, playing, watching and developing relationships with so many different types of people are the reason I'm still standing," she said. "People always tell you that playing sports will teach you lifelong lessons and help you create unforgettable friendships. Sure, I believed it, and maybe even incidentally acted on a few of those lessons and maintained some of those friendships, but never really understood the beauty, until now.

"No matter the sport I played, one essential lesson always stood out - no matter how hard you fight, what is meant to be will always be. It's not about the outcome, it's about preparing yourself for the next battle. Despite how defeated you might feel, one day you will realize this is 'it.' Right now, is make or break.

"I never gave up on myself," she continued. "I took a break, and sidelined myself, but I got back to it.

"Tony and I fought hard, really, really hard. It was exhausting, painful and beyond heartbreaking to have to let him go. I had never felt so defeated in my life. However, what I was finally able to realize, is it was never about the outcome.

"I had no control over that. What I had control over, was how hard I fought and how I would allow the outcome to affect me.

"Whatever one might endure has no significance, unless they allow it to prepare them for today."

What Butzlaff spoke about wasn't the moments where you scored the game-winning goal or banked in a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. She was talking about the preparation that comes when no one is watching.

"The moment when as a forward you see your midfield has given up so you sprint back as fast as you can to cover your last defender, only to get there and see now your team is counterattacking the other way.

"The moment when as a point guard you step up and take a charge against a player three times your size in an empty suburban gym.

"The moment when your teammate qualifies for the state cross country race and you don't, but you still go to support your teammate and at every turn she sees your face in the crowd cheering her to the finish.

"Those moments are the moments that are most productive, most pivotal and illuminate the most character."

I caught up with Butzlaff at last week's Brookfield Central-Brookfield basketball doubleheader. She looked wonderful and I had the chance to thank her for sharing a very difficult email at a special time of the year.

She added one more thought to share.

"Life isn't about the relationships you make," Butzlaff, "but rather the relationships you keep."

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