The slings and arrows
Mitchell Ensor's outrageous fortune is ALS, but he's keeping the faith
By Gary Garth
Special to The Courier-Journal
LEBANON JUNCTION, Ky. -- Archery deer season opened yesterday, and Mitchell Ensor plans to be in the woods soon -- just as he has every season for more than 25 years.
"I started bow hunting when I was 11 years old, and I killed my first deer when I was 11," said Ensor, 38. "It was a little bitty five-point, but it was a big one for me."
This season will be a big one for Ensor. He learned in March that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
ALS is an illness that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal column, eventually stripping its victim of muscular control. There's no known cure and no real treatment.
The news was crushing for Ensor and his family. He and his wife, Kay, have two children, 6-year-old Shelby Kay and 3-year-old Tanner Mitchell. They also share their rambling house with Ensor's parents and brother.
"At the time I didn't know a thing about ALS," Ensor said. "I'd never even heard of it. We researched it ourselves. The hard thing about it was the life expectancy. It's about 2½ years."
He had known for months that something was wrong and suspected it might be serious. Problems first surfaced last Sept. 8 when he was hospitalized for what was diagnosed at the time as a mild heart attack.
"They took me to the hospital about 10:30 that night, and I had all the symptoms," he recalled. "Chest pain, left arm going numb, elevated blood pressure, the whole nine yards. I even had an enzyme in my blood that showed muscle damage. But they couldn't find any damage to my heart."
He went home and resumed his regular daily routine, which hinged around his family, hunting, fishing and his job building automobile drive shafts for Dana Corp. on Westport Road.
Then during an October turkey hunt he had trouble drawing his bow and had to lighten the pull weight. In November it happened again, this time while he was hunting deer in Christian County.
"That was the second time in three weeks that I had to turn the poundage down on my bow," Ensor said.
There were other signs, but like many men faced with health problems, he fought to ignore them.
"At first I kind of thought from what the doctors were saying that it was just the aftermath of a heart attack," he said. "But that just wasn't right. I started stumbling, and my balance was way off. I'd framed houses for years and walked on roofs and walked on walls and never had a problem, then all of a sudden I was falling."
He saw another physician who ordered more tests. The diagnosis arrived March 13.
"It was devastating," he said.
'I don't know howto grasp a lot of it'
Ensor sat at his kitchen table sipping a glass of sweetened ice tea, his son crawling into and out of his lap. A few minutes later his daughter appeared, home from her second day of school and eager to tell Daddy about it.
The children soon disappeared downstairs. Ensor wiped away tears.
"When you have your kids, it's hard," he said. "My boy's really too little to understand. My daughter knows that I have ALS, but I don't know if she knows how to grab hold of the death process. I don't know how to grasp a lot of it myself."
He's confident and optimistic but has no illusions about the future. He's not a man to wallow in self-pity. His Christian faith is solid and deep, and he doesn't question why things happen.
"The Bible says that the Lord is not going to put more on you than you can handle," said Ensor, a member of Summit Hills Baptist Church in Brooks. "I've been asked, 'With you being a Christian, why do you think God has done this to you?' The only thing I can say is that God didn't do it to me, but I know without a doubt that if it wasn't for God being with me now, I'd be in the loony bin. Without God, who or what would you turn to?"
Ensor has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from friends, co-workers and fellow sportsmen, who heard his news through the grapevine.
He shot competitive archery for several years with Martin bows, then worked with Scott King at Field and Stream Outfitters on Bardstown Road, through whom he shot with Hoyt and Matthews Archery. He also has filmed hunts for the outdoor video industry, and he has fished numerous local bass tournaments, often through Louisville FOP Lodge 614.
Still in the hunt
Not long after he was diagnosed, Ensor was on his way to South Dakota.
"Some guys from the Derby City and Kentucky River chapters of the NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation) found out about me and paid for a fully paid hunt to South Dakota to hunt Merriam turkeys," he said.
He bagged a Merriam and also tagged a Rio Grande turkey in Oklahoma. He has killed several Eastern gobblers and is one bird shy of turkey hunting's Grand Slam.
"If the Lord is willing, I'm going to try to find a way to get to Florida next spring and get my Osceola and complete my Grand Slam," he said.
He recently returned from Lake City, Fla., where he participated in an archery hunt for alligators from a small boat at night. Ensor wasn't the shooter but did record some video of the hunt. The biggest gator they bagged was 12 feet long and weighed 600 pounds.
"We were in a 16-foot aluminum boat, and he came out of the water and he and I went eye to eye," he said.
The gator then went under the boat and raked its bony spine directly under Ensor's seat, which "nearly scared me to death."
He has several hunts planned this fall, but there's no way to know what next spring or even next month will bring. The disease has significantly weakened his arms and hands and has affected his right foot (he wears a lower leg and foot brace).
His doctors have instructed him not to go into the woods alone because if he fell it would be very difficult for him to get back up. He also can't straighten his fingers without assistance.
Ensor is shooting a modified crossbow this year. He's still able to drive a car and was mowing his lawn when I arrived at his home. He can climb the stairs, but his speech is slightly slurred.
"The complicated part about ALS is that it affects every person differently," he said. "ALS doesn't care who it gets or when it gets them. It's not a very nice disease."
Ensor wants to see something good come from his situation. He is part of a University of Kentucky study on ALS that he hopes will help lead to a treatment or cure, even if it doesn't benefit him. He's willing to tell anyone who will listen how God has blessed him.
And he intends to hunt and fish as often and as long as he can.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that it's all going to be a bed of roses, because it's not," he said. "But if it wasn't for the Lord and for believing that everything happens for a purpose, well, if this helps somebody who is handicapped or disabled or if someone doesn't know the Lord but they seek His will and His way and they find it, then it's worth it."
Before March 13 Ensor took each day for granted. No more.
"You should thank the Lord for every moment that you have a life," he said. "Not every day. Every moment. Because you never know what's coming."