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The Man Behind The Swim


David Garber at home in North Falmouth.

Just over a decade ago, Dr. David E. Garber would have described himself, he said, as “family-oriented, intellectually curious, mildly religious, generous, adventurous, conscientious, funny, astonishingly good-looking and a little compulsive.”

Using eye-tracking technology which converts his eye movements, one letter at a time, into language, the 71-year-old said he would describe himself in almost the same terms today: Maybe slightly less conscientious, perhaps “less astonishingly, but still good-looking,” and these days “more than a little compulsive.”

For the last 13 years, Dr. Garber has been living with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease), a progressive disease of the nervous system that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control for which there is currently no cure.

He credits the local organization Compassionate Care ALS (CCALS) with his decision to extend his life by undergoing a tracheostomy, which allows him to breathe with the help of a ventilator. Without a ventilator, the vast majority of Americans with ALS live for three to five years after diagnosis, most often succumbing to respiratory failure.

CCALS is a West-Falmouth-based nonprofit organization that provides a full range of support to people diagnosed with ALS, their families, healthcare providers, and communities, at no charge, including expensive equipment which insurance companies typically do not cover.

Since his diagnosis, Dr. Garber has committed to fundraising for CCALS through “David’s Old Silver Swim,” a half-mile and one-mile race (including a half-mile non-competitive loop), along the shoreline of Old Silver Beach in North Falmouth.

The swim, which draws swimmers of all ages and abilities from Cape Cod and states across the country, was organized by Dr. Garber’s family and friends when he was no longer able to continue the daily year-round swimming for which he was locally known (even when he had to chop through ice to do it).

David’s Old Silver Swim has currently raised close to one million dollars for CCALS.

Dr. Garber grew up in Sharon and spent summers in North Falmouth with his family before moving to Falmouth permanently in 1978 to start his dental practice.

He has been described as “an unconditional lover of the ocean,” who has been a swimmer all of his life. As a college student, he was a lifeguard at both Wood Neck Beach and Stony Beach in Woods Hole.

In his 40s, Dr. Garber started distance swimming with a passion. On his 50th birthday, he swam from Falmouth to Martha’s Vineyard with family members following in a boat behind to help him avoid ferries and jellyfish. This open-ocean swim to Martha’s Vineyard is a memory he treasures.

“I loved swimming in Buzzards Bay, virtually in front of my house,” he said by email for this article. “I savored the feeling of both accomplishment and well-being that it engendered.”

Dr. Garber received his ALS diagnosis at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston after more than a year of tests to eliminate all other possible causes for his symptoms.

Due to his medical background and his own research on ALS, he was already quite certain that he had the disease, he said, but he retained hope that it was something—almost anything—else.

“Jellyfish poisoning was my favorite go-to cause for my symptoms because, really, all those bites I got while swimming could have had a deleterious effect previously unknown to science, right?”

In the early years, while exploring possible treatments/cures for ALS, Dr. Garber found what appeared to be a great deal of promise with a group of scientists in Jerusalem who were exploring a treatment to extract, process, and a reintroduce a patient’s own stem cells to stop the spread of the disease.

The Israeli-based group was starting a clinical trial, and Dr. Garber met the standard to be included in this first-of-its-kind venture.

“I needed to relocate to Israel for several months, no small undertaking, but I did so with unmitigated hope for a positive result,” he said. “I had hoped that the clinical trial would be beneficial not only to me, but to so many others affected with ALS.

“This was not to be the case, as I did not regain any feeling with the exception of a slight movement in my thumb,” he said, “but I retained hope that I had at least a small part to play in unraveling the mystery of the disease.”

What has stayed with him about the experience, Dr. Garber said, is “the kindness of the Israelis, the brilliance and sensitivity of the researchers, the optimism I had while living there, and the support of those near and dear to me as I endured the clinical trial,” including some family and friends who were able to travel to Israel to be with him during the process.

David Garber (left) with caregiver Daniel Minichan in North Falmouth.

Dr. Garber lives in the North Falmouth house by the sea where he spent summers growing up. His wood-paneled room on the ground floor faces his gardens and the water. Above the mantel is a large, framed, black and white photograph of a pair of sun- and sand-weathered sneakers. New Orleans Jazz Festival posters adorn the walls.

Among the many family photos filling the space where he spends his time is the one—featured on the David’s Old Silver Swim website—of Dr. Garber on his 50th birthday: slim, muscular, tanned, coming out of the water after his swim to Martha’s Vineyard, laughing with his arms raised in celebration.

By any measure, Dr. Garber has embraced “living in a different world,” as he calls it, than the one he inhabited pre-diagnosis. In the “Reflections” section of the David’s Swim website, he refers to himself as “a fortunate man.”

Asked if he would still use those words, he said: “I can definitely say that I am a fortunate man. I had an idyllic childhood, a successful dental practice which I loved; a wonderful family, fantastic kids and now their terrific spouses; sisters who watch over me; wonderful caregivers; marvelous doctors and loyal and caring friends who have managed to stay close for years.

“I want to state unequivocally that life doesn’t have to end with illness. It just changes. Health is important, of course, it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise, but it’s not as important as love. That is the true worth of a life,” he said.

“He shows us there are lots of ways to have a rich life; it doesn’t have to be in just physical ways,” longtime friend JoAnn M. Fishbein said of Dr. Garber. She and her husband, Dr. Michael M. Fishbein, have visited their close friend David every Wednesday evening since his diagnosis.

In a section of the swim’s website called “David,” Michael Fishbein says, “For more than a decade, JoAnn and I have set aside Wednesday evenings as ‘David night’…’David night’ has become our favorite. We refer to it as Wednesday Sabbath. A time to enter a new space —slower, quieter, contemplative…”

“ALS has really tested his ability to adapt and maintain a positive attitude,” Dr. Fishbein said. “I admire David’s ability to stretch the limits of what is possible by using his imagination, creativity, grit, and sense of humor.”

When asked about his favorite activity these days, Dr. Garber said it is hard to single out a favorite. “I live a very full life and enjoy a range of favorites.”

That said, being walked around his yard to look at the gardens and observe nature ,season by season, was at the top of his list.

“Pre-ALS I always enjoyed working in my garden,” he said, “and post-ALS I have adjusted to taking pleasure in observing changes, week to week, season to season.”

Dr. Garber said he loves to see people going about their daily lives and having a good time. He often goes out to dinner with friends and even though he is unable to eat, he said, “just to be in a restaurant and absorbing the scene brings me joy.”

“Mostly, however, I love visiting with friends and family,” he said.

“I follow local professional sports and I go to concerts whenever possible,” Dr. Garber said. “Music is always playing at my house. All kinds, with a preference for New Orleans jazz. I enjoy hearing the music; the caregivers enjoy it; and it helps lift everyone’s spirits.”

Dr. Garber has a 7-month-old grandson for whom he has this advice: “I wish for Ezra that he lives a life of joy and to do what he must be mindful of doing; what he knows is right. He must have inner strength and the courage of his convictions, but also must never be afraid of admitting when he needs help. That is the true strength.”

“He must never forget to ‘Swing for the Fences’ and to ‘Live his Life as Large as possible,’ as his grandfather tries to do,” he said.

Does Dr. Garber feel that his ALS journey has a spiritual component to it?

After considering the question for a long while, he responded that he does not feel that his ALS journey has any more of a spiritual component to it than his life pre-ALS.

“I have always been a person with a strong sense of conscience and have tried to live my life with an awareness of the ‘here and now,’ as well as an eye on the ‘other,’” he said. “I don’t think living with ALS has altered that, and this makes me feel as though I’m the same person I always was…And that, actually, makes me happy.”

To meet David Garber in person today is to be in the presence of an astonishingly good-looking man with sparkling eyes and a mischievous smile; the man in the photo coming out of the water, exuding joy and celebrating life.

This year’s 12th annual David’s Old Silver Swim will again be held at Old Silver Beach in front of the Sea Crest Beach Hotel on Saturday, August 13, starting at 9:30 AM. Registration closes on August 8. The swim’s website is: