PIEDMONT -- Piedmont High School alum Corey Reich was just 21 when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"It was the worst day of my life," said Reich, now 27 and living at home with his family in Piedmont. "It was like a death sentence. The scariest part is not knowing if you have one year to live or 20."
In his sophomore year at college, Reich noticed that his hands weren't working well.
"My first symptoms were a loss of dexterity and weakness, but the changes were small at first," Reich said. "In junior year, I noticed I couldn't run as fast, then my voice started to change and I knew I had to figure out what was going on."
It took a few weeks of tests and scans -- ALS is diagnosed through a process of elimination -- before Reich received the tough news.
ALS attacks motor neurons, causing muscles to atrophy. Eventually those with ALS become completely paralyzed, unable to speak, eat or breathe on their own. Though the progression of the disease varies, people typically live two to five years after diagnosis. There is no treatment or cure.
"Fortunately, my progression is very slow," Reich said. "It's been six years since my diagnosis and I can still walk, eat, drink and talk."
Soon after his diagnosis, Reich and his family began Corey's Crusade, which so far has raised more than $4 million for ALS drug research and development.
"After I finished college, my family wanted to get involved in fundraising," Reich said. "We hosted a big gala at the Claremont Country Club and invited family and friends. We raised $400K. I couldn't believe it was so successful."
The Reich family has hosted the gala every year since and sponsors other fundraisers that are now in their third year. Reich also helped launch "Young Faces of ALS" on Facebook to raise awareness that ALS can affect young people, too.
"A lot of people associate ALS with a grandparent," Reich said. "But people are getting this disease in the prime of their lives."
All the money goes to the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS-TDI), a biotech, nonprofit drug development lab, dedicated to ending ALS. On Nov. 21, the Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance (A2A) honored Reich for his fundraising and outreach work at a private reception in Piedmont, at which Reich received the Lori Hope and Courage Award. Lori Hope, who died last year from cancer, was the first recipient of the award.
"I'm very honored to get this award from A2A," Reich said. "It's a pretty unique organization that brings together people with every type of adversity, including cancer, mental illness and ALS. It's great to be involved with so many inspiring people."
A2A founder and President Jeff Bell said the organization is proud to honor Reich for using his own adversity to advocate for others.
"Corey demonstrates the limitless nature of what's possible when someone dealing with an adversity chooses to advocate on behalf of others facing similar challenges," Bell said. "We couldn't be more proud to have Corey and his family involved in A2A."
Despite his diagnosis and against what his doctors thought possible, Reich returned to Middlebury College in Vermont for his senior year, graduating with a degree in Spanish.
"I originally wanted to be a cosmetic dentist," said Reich, who now works as the assistant tennis coach at Piedmont High School, a sport he loved to play at high school.
Today, Reich uses an electric wheelchair and said he's logged 750 miles in the 18 months since he started using it.
"I resisted the idea of using a wheelchair at first," Reich said. "But it gives me a lot more independence. It's easy to hole up if you have ALS, but the wheelchair gets me outside and keeps me connected with Piedmont, a town that I love."
Reich's mother Wendy said her son wakes up happy every day and is always positive.
"He's never once complained about what he can't do, he just moves forward," she said. "We seize the day every day and have as much fun as possible. Our lives have been enriched by Corey's disease through the outpouring of love and learning to be more philanthropic."
ALS is definitely a family affair for the Reichs. Dad Ted Reich sits on the board of ALS-TDI and sister Clare does fundraising for the research company.
"A lot of our conversation at the dinner table is about ALS," Reich joked.
He said there's no specific diet or exercise regimen that doctors recommend for ALS patients.
"ALS patients are encouraged to eat a lot, as they tend to lose weight -- that's one of the few good things about ALS," said Reich, who also does Pilates twice a week and enjoys a good beer.
Wendy Reich described ALS as "an orphan disease."
"Not a lot of people have ALS -- it's about the same incidence as Multiple Sclerosis (MS)," she said. "MS is a terrible disease, but they now have medicine so that life is extended."
She said pharmaceutical companies have focused less on ALS, since life expectancy is so short, making long-term studies difficult -- and less profitable.
"We're trying to bridge the gap between research and pharmaceuticals -- we're trying to make it a more profitable disease," Reich said, bluntly.
Reich said he enrolled in various experimental drug treatments, but none of them worked.
"Now, I've had the disease too long and I'm disqualified from current studies," Reich said. "They don't want someone in the study who might die and ruin their study."
The only drug currently available to ALS patients has been proven to prolong life by a mere one to three months.
"That's not very long at all," said Reich, who rolls his eyes.
While he keeps a positive -- and humorous -- attitude, Reich said he's by no means in denial.
"I'm very aware of my disease but I don't focus on what I can do in two years, I focus on what I can do today and enjoy the moment -- it's a mantra for my whole family."