Essence Magazine is back with its second annual college ambassador search and they are looking for …
“There will never be another Mario Finnell; not in this lifetime, nor in the next one to come. He embodies life, and he embodies love.”
This heartfelt declaration was given by childhood friend, Dr. Faith Oliver, as she reflected on the life, legacy, and impact of Mario Finnell — a man currently debilitated by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or as it is commonly referred to as “ALS.” But for 48-year-old Finnell, the disease is but a minor hindrance to his life’s mission, because there is still work to be done.
The once active, athletic, and socially energetic Dallasite is now perched in his wheelchair, resting near a sunlit window. The television plays silently in the background as the light beams through, creating a euphoric aura around his delicate frame. Ushering us in with a smile, we gazed upon his radiance. Ignited by the halo, we paused. Ironically he resembled an angel.
Though presently handicapped, Finnell was accommodating — offering us water, comfort and the like before proceeding. What we would come to know later — this act of selflessness, was just many of his infinite traits echoed continuously through the words of family, friends, and even strangers.
It was only a year ago that Mario Finnell was living life the way he always did: full, vibrant, and free. A lover of travel and all things fashion, Finnell personified “the good life.”
“I love fashion,” Finnell beamed. “I always liked to express myself uniquely. I never wanted to look like anyone else or wear the latest fad because everyone else was doing it. It was just an expression, so that became a part of my social life; and I was very, very, very social.”
Boasting on shopping’s guilty pleasures, Finnell credits his Downtown favorite, Traffic LA, for his style savvy swag. “I like their clothes because they’re very unique, [and] very comfortable. I always had my own core of creativity when it came to fashion.”
Briefly scanning his outfit of the day, we agree. Though post-diagnosis and fragile, Mario Finnell donned comfort chic. Dressed in all black, complete with his signature black-rimmed specs, it’s safe to say that Mario still has it.
It all started with a pain. What Finnell initially categorized as slight discomfort in his left pinky finger, would change the course of his life forever.
As an active, health-conscious individual, he dismissed the pain as minor, and went on with his everyday musings. Thirty days later, Mario was unable to hold his finger up and quickly sought medical attention. After several reflex examinations, and a latter trip to the neurologist, it would not be nerve damage as Finnell had hoped — he was preliminarily diagnosed with ALS.
“The doctor explained to me that there really was no cure,” Finnell reflected. “There was a medication that is used to treat it [and] slow down the progression but it’s very expensive. It’s $1,000 for a 30-day supply.” Mario would later learn that ALS patients who took the medication, outlived those who opted against it, for only two to three months longer.
The next round of facts would all come swiftly at Finnell as he tried to process it all, including the disheartening news that the life expectancy post-diagnosis is on average 18 months.
“I was really just trying to take all of this in. I did do the ice bucket challenge when it was going around. I just did it because I was challenged and it was a ‘thing to do,'” Finnell admitted. “I didn’t know anything about the disease or much about what caused it. So when I was diagnosed with it, I thought that it was very ironic.”
The ALS Association defines the disease as “a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.” The site goes on to detail the loss of nourishment for the muscles, inevitably causing them to “waste away.” Outside of the devastating news, Finnell would also learn that ALS rarely would strike someone of his age and ethnicity — but it did.
“The disease is really debilitating,” Mario added. “The funny thing is, with all of that, it does not affect your thinking. Your cognition is regular. You’re very aware of what your condition is, at all times.” At this point in the interview, Mario would experience uncontrollable shaking in his jaw and voice — a side effect of the disease. Following a brief facial massage, and some sips of water, he would be ready to proceed.
“As you can tell, my voice is a little affected by the disease,” Mario told us apologetically. “Eventually I will probably have to have a machine that talks for me if it continues to progress.” Despite his frail condition, Finnell proves to be a fighter, taking ALS head-on and even making plans for the future. But before we scooped the dish, we journeyed back to brighter days.
LIFE IN REFLECTION
Hindsight is not always 20/20, because according to Mario he lived the life he wanted to lead. There were no regrets to retort, no bucket list, and most importantly, no sorrow.
“I was recently asked ‘what’s on my bucket list?’ I don’t have a bucket list because I’ve been so blessed,” Finnell stated humbly. “I’ve done everything that I’ve wanted to do. You know when people say when I grow up I want to be rich? I never said that. I said, ‘When I grow up I want to be able to travel and see the world’ — and I’ve been blessed to do that.”
Citing favorites of Rio de Janeiro to Maui to Paris, Mario’s affinity for culture, diversity, and beauty drove his deepest desires in life. Alongside his avid affection for family and friends, Finnell is at peace with his current situation — a type of serenity that we surprisingly experienced while in his presence.
“My attitude is very good right now. I’m at peace with this disease even though I’m fighting it,” Finnell stated. And while he’s physically able, Finnell will vigorously fight — not just for himself, but for other ALS victims, through his newly minted Mario A. Finnell ALS Foundation.
THE MARIO A. FINNELL ALS FOUNDATION
Recently legitimized in April, Mario’s ALS Foundation is his new focus, along with the legacy he desires to leave behind. A glass-half-full type of gentleman, Mario feels “blessed” to garner awareness in his critical state. From funding to assistance to resources and group therapy, Mario Finnell is on a mission.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to take this disease and do something positive with it, with my foundation. I want to bring a lot more awareness to the disease. With awareness comes funding, and funding brings about a cure. I also want to be able to provide people living with ALS and their families assistance with resources and tools (wheelchairs, bidets, splints, etc.) to help them live better.”
Always thinking of others, Mario counts the disease as a blessing and a way to give back to the community that has given so much to him. “The blessing is the ability to give back [and] share a little knowledge about the disease and show people that no matter what, you just have to keep moving on, live in your moment, and do the best that you can.”
Before concluding, Mario shared with us for his family, friends, and anyone who may stumble upon these words:
“Take everyday and live it to the best that you can…and even when you have bad days, just know that it’s just a moment in your life and moments do pass. There’s a lesson in the blessing of everyday.”
And just as his words permeated, we reflected, breathed in the moment, and realized that we were better spiritually by our brief encounter with Mario. His impact on the world was even greater.
Through his story, livelihood, and current condition — his legacy of faith, perseverance, and selflessness will continue to live on. If nothing else, take a page from Mario’s book and live in the moment — a life without bucket lists or regrets, is one worth living.
To learn more about ALS, please visit The ALS Association website. To donate to The Mario A. Finnell ALS Foundation, please visit here. All photos were used courtesy of Mario Finnell and are copyright protected.