Colin Farbotko fought ALS with wisecracks

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2012 - 6:53 PM

Colin Farbotko.

Colin Farbotko, a Minneapolis triathlete, runner, skier, biker and all-around creative guy, accepted that he would live life as a "gimp" after losing the use of his arm. Two years later, doctors told him he would die.

Soon after being diagnosed with ALS, the neurodegenerative illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Farbotko changed the name of his blog to "I know this is sad, but I can't stop laughing." With humor, sarcasm and computer wizardry, the blog chronicled the progression of Farbotko's six-year battle with ALS, which ended when he died Oct. 15 at age 34.

His mother, Janet Farbotko of Roscoe, Ill., said family and friends were devastated when they learned the diagnosis. But her son, she said, banned pity parties and eventually found irony in the fact that a physically fit athlete like himself ended up with ALS. "He thought it was kind of funny," she said.

Farbotko didn't give in to the disease easily. He adapted. He skied with one pole and jury-rigged his bike to accommodate his weakening muscles. When he couldn't play the guitar or the mandolin, he found a way to continue to play the drums, using rubber bands and later velcro to attach a drumstick to his limp hand. When his left arm bounced out of control as he ran, he put it in a sling and then didn't waste time lamenting over slower race times that bumped him from the podium in triathlons.

The disease crept up on him, beginning in the fall of 2006, about seven months after he married Marney Olson. His left thumb didn't seem to work -- " He couldn't hold onto things," she said. Farbotko, an Ironman triathlon finisher, shrugged it off as a sports injury, maybe a pinched nerve. But the muscle degeneration spread and by 2009, the diagnosis was ALS. No treatment. No cure.

"He wasn't going to stop laughing and enjoying life," said Olson. "[He thought] rather than dwell on the fact that my life isn't going to be the same and it's not going to be what I expected, and unfortunately, the only thing it's going to do is get worse, I'm not going to stop living life. ... Certainly there were hard moments. ... He would get sad, sometimes angry. And then he would use sarcasm and humor to deal with it."

A July 2008 blog entry revels in the fun things to do when you have a rare motor neuron disorder. When people ask about it, "Give them a bunch of details." When the person says, "Wow, that really sucks. ... Respond with 'Yeah, but the worst part is it's really contagious. You should probably wash your hands soon.'"

He created a motor neuron cartoon with the caption: "Just don't get too attached, he'll be dead soon." And Farbotko, a graphics artist and Web and video designer who worked for Target and later Inscape Publishing, created a motor-neuron-killing computer game -- the more neurons you zap, the more points you rack up.

He found comic relief as doctors probed and shocked him, and he used sarcasm to deal with the degeneration of his muscles. "I really miss snapping my fingers," he wrote in his blog.

Farbotko's friends and family captured his spirit in a humorous newspaper obituary that paid tribute to a man they admired for his creativity and intelligence. It recounted his youthful adventures at Luther College in Iowa, the prize-winning snow sculptures he created with his father and his overall dislikes: "bad drivers, people who talk in movie theaters and ALS."

In addition to his wife and mother, he is survived by his father, George, and sister, Anna, who lives in Nantes, France.

Many of his family and friends gathered this weekend at a Minneapolis Irish pub to toast Farbotko and his love for craft beer, good whiskey and fine food, pleasures that became harder and harder for him to enjoy.

"Every time he adjusted to a change then something else got worse," his wife said. "He knew there was no good ending. But it was what it was."

So he found happiness where he could. In June 2011 he blogged about achieving every man's dream: always finding the toilet seat up.

"My arms are so weak that it takes considerable effort to lift the lid and seat. My wife, in a display of almost unfathomable kindness, has started leaving the seat up for me. It's a beautiful thing."

His wife laughed when reminded of the blog entry. "He found joy in life."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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