Community Support and a Fighting Spirit

Carlin community rallies behind administrator and former coach Myron Branning as he confronts Lou Gehrig’s disease

By Dianna Troyer

Myron Branning is checking items off his bucket list as Carlin residents cheer for him. A beloved administrator and former coach at Carlin Combined School, Myron was diagnosed in early August with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which attacks motor neurons—cells that control the muscles. He plans to retire at the end of the school year.

The progressive neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

“Doctors told us patients live two to five years after their diagnosis,” says Myron, 45.

During spring break, Myron Branning used a tracked wheelchair during a wild hog hunt in Texas. With Myron are, from left, Michael Alexander, Doug Hutchison and Jeff Alexander.
During spring break, Myron Branning used a tracked wheelchair during a wild hog hunt in Texas. With Myron are, from left, Michael Alexander, Doug Hutchison and Jeff Alexander.

He, his wife, JoLynn, 47, and their son, Dennis, 21, a student at nearby Great Basin College, hope for more time. They remember hearing an encouraging speaker at an ALS support group in Salt Lake City.

“The man said he was diagnosed 15 years ago,” says JoLynn. “It affects people differently.”

Fulfilling one of his goals, Myron went on a wild hog hunt in Texas during spring break in March. This month, he hopes to watch the NCAA Division III Softball Championship in Oklahoma. During summer, he will go fishing along the Oregon Coast.

To celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary May 26, Myron and JoLynn plan to spend the day in the hills or go fishing.

His retirement this month coincides with May being ALS Awareness Month. Myron says he will not allow the disease to define who he is.

“I want people to treat me the way they always have,” says Myron. “I’m the same guy. I just can’t do as much or I have to do things differently.”

Even after his diagnosis, he continued to work as athletic director and vice principal, relying on an electric wheelchair to help prevent fatigue.

“Myron shows up to work with a smile,” says Principal Thomas Cunningham. “He’s a great role model and example of how we should deal with adversity in our lives. He’s an amazing person who has many amazing accomplishments as a coach and vice principal. People listen when he speaks because they know he is right.”

The Brannings say they have been impressed with fundraisers that have helped pay for medical expenses.

Myron with his son, Dennis, and his wife, JoLynn.
Myron with his son, Dennis, and his wife, JoLynn. They plan to make the most of summer.

“The communities of Carlin and Wells are amazing,” JoLynn says. “It’s been overwhelming to see how many people want to show they care. Business owners donated prizes, and community members bought raffle tickets.”

“We couldn’t have asked for a better community of caring people to call home,” Myron adds.

Myron began his teaching career in Carlin in 1999, the year he graduated from Mayville State University in North Dakota. A Wells native, he earned a football scholarship to pay for college. He and JoLynn, also an education major, met at the university.

They both found jobs in Carlin. JoLynn teaches kindergarten. Myron was hired to teach physical education.

“Instead of P.E., I always called it M.S.A.—making students athletes,” he says. “I taught a fit-for-life mentality and encouraged students to exercise all their lives.”

Whenever coaches were needed, Myron volunteered. He led the softball, basketball, wrestling and football teams until he became an administrator. The Nevada High School Athletic Directors Association named Myron the 1A Athletic Director of the Year for 2018.

Myron Branning and student Andrew Dodd
Myron makes sure he still has time to meet with students, such as Andrew Dodd.

“At first, I thought I’d stay in Carlin a few years and eventually leave to coach at a college,” says Myron.

After his teams won state championships, he was offered coaching jobs at other high schools but turned them down.

“Coaches tend to move around a lot if they want to advance,” says JoLynn. “We didn’t want that kind of lifestyle for our son.”

Content in Carlin, Myron was surprised when his health began to deteriorate. In January 2017, he suspected he had multiple sclerosis or ALS because his left leg suddenly weakened. Last May, his speech became slurred.

Seeking a diagnosis, he went to the University of Utah.

“There isn’t a test for ALS, but there are tests for the diseases that mimic it, like MS or muscular dystrophy,” he says. “Other diseases were ruled out, so doctors knew it was ALS.”

After he was diagnosed, Myron says he said, “Well, that sucks doesn’t it?”

JoLynn joked with him and said, “Why do you always have to be right?”

To slow the disease’s progression, he is taking pills and is waiting for his insurance company to approve payment for infusions.

Every three months, Myron and JoLynn go to the University of Utah Hospital, where he undergoes an individualized treatment plan. From about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., he meets with his doctor, a social worker, and physical, respiratory, occupational and speech therapists. Their exercises help him maintain his mobility.

JoLynn says Myron wants to be independent as long as possible.

“He asked me to wait for him to ask for help,” she says.

During spring break, Myron borrowed a tracked wheelchair to go on his wild hog hunt.

“It has a gun rest and worked great,” says Myron, who grew up hunting elk and deer in northern Nevada. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. We hunted two days, and I got a hog each day.”

Anticipating the end of the school year, the Brannings are looking at the start of a new chapter.

“We take one day at a time,” JoLynn says.