BY ROB MENDONSA
It’s 1987 and a doctor is having the unenviable task of telling a 19-year-old boy that he has multiple sclerosis. To be told this at such a young age is devastating for most teens, but Robert Bertolas was not your average teen. For him, it was just inspiration.
Inspiration to help him lose over 60 pounds. Inspiration to train for marathons in Toronto, New York and New Castle, England, then cap it all off with a run, bike and roller blade, 9,653-kilometre trip across Canada to help raise money and awareness for MS.
It’s in The Wigs and Hair Studio in Cambridge, owned by now 44-year-old Bertolas, still looking young and fit, and Suzanne, his wife, business partner and tour manager on his run across Canada, that he begins to describe how happy he is with where life’s road has taken him. He has no regrets about the cards that life dealt him. In fact, he welcomes them and plays them out as they’re given to him each day.
“Life is fun, but if you let the bad consume you then you’ll have no room for the good,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to brush it off and let it go.”
Looking at pictures of him as a teen though you would never guess this was the same person. At one point he was over 260 lbs. but, after his doctor said he should lose the weight to help cope with the MS there was no turning back.
Bertolas doesn’t believe in doing something if you’re not going to give it your all. So not only did he lose the weight he went on to train and run three major marathons.
He then points to pictures on the wall of the Victory Tour across Canada and begins to describe how it was conceived in 2007. After jokingly saying to Suzanne one night, “we should run across Canada,” by the following day she was busy laying the groundwork, complete with police cruisers and media stops in every major city along the TransCanada highway.
“If you want 10 months of excitement in your life, where you’re seeing Canada as fast as you can bike or run, then this is the thing to do,” Bertolas said chuckling. “When biking through Rogers Pass in B.C., where it took six hours to get uphill then 45 minutes to come down the other side at 80 km/h, I thought, I should probably slow down. But then I thought naw, and just let it drop and let it fly (and thinking) if I crash, it will just be a better story for the papers.”
“No one can take these memories from us,” said Suzanne. “It took me a year to plan this all out, over a 100 newspapers, radio and television stations in every major market including Breakfast Television, and we did it all without any help from outside sources.”
Whereas some would have given up and accepted their fate, Bertolas said “no, I won’t let this disease beat me down.” Sitting on the couch bitterly waiting for MS to take over his body was not an option.
That same determination and drive led Bertolas to seek the controversial Liberation Treatment which involves opening up neck veins in patients suffering from MS, thus allowing blood to flow more freely to the brain which some people believe alleviates some of the symptoms associated with the disease.
The therapy, which is $13,000, is not funded by the Canadian government and so the Bertolas travelled to Poland in 2010 to have the procedure done at their own expense, with help from a couple of corporate sponsors and some fundraising events held prior to their departure.
“It all comes down to choices,” said Bertolas. “You can choose to accept your fate and let things happen to you, or you can be the master of your own destiny. If there is something out there that even remotely might help me then it’s worth trying.”
Bertolas feels some of his symptoms have been lessened since having the treatment in 2010.
“My life has been great, the cross-country trip, the marathons, I’ve lived three lives, but this would have never happened if I didn’t get diagnosed with MS,” he said of his life journey. “I like to think of it like this. When you’re travelling down the road of life and everything is good you’re going straight. Then all of a sudden you hit a major problem in your life and now you have choices, you can go left or you can go right, which forces you down a different road. Now, something good happens to you, and you’re all happy, but you would never have gotten to that happy place if first you didn’t hit that problem back down the road. That’s what life is.”