The man with a van

Ask Tony Lipman what he'd like to be doing, and you will get the same answer each time: Put him on a boat, in the middle of a lake, catching salmon or trout. Simple as that.

Away from the boat and off of the lake, things get more complicated. At 36 years old, Tony has multiple sclerosis, a disease that has taken his sight and confined him to a wheelchair.

Multiple sclerosis is a failure of the body to ward off its own immune cells. Cells in an MS patient mistakenly attack nerves that relay commands to and from the brain — commands to eat, speak and move. In most cases, symptoms of MS do not surface until a patient reaches his or her thirties. And that explains why, until 2002, Tony showed virtually no signs of illness.

"And then everything started going wrong," he said.

Tony lives on a ten-acre property east of Ashland, in the family home of his long-time friend, Jed Davis. Thanks to Jed's mother, Jonnalee Davis, Tony has the stability many in his position do not. She takes it upon herself to make his life easier whenever possible.

"I feel like I can help Tony keep doing all the things that he wants to do, and that makes me feel good," Jonnalee said, adding, "I love him like a flesh and blood son."

She remembers the day in 2002, when Tony's routine trip to the eye doctor yielded a diagnosis of optic neuritis — a precursor of MS. She also remembers when, soon after, it became apparent Tony could no longer live on his own.

Tony was renting a one-bedroom apartment in Ashland in 2003. The two spoke by phone one morning, and had agreed to talk later that day. But Jonnalee became concerned when her following calls went unanswered.

"It scared me," she said. "I went down there, and when I got to his front door I could hear this 'Bam! Bam! Bam!'" Using a spare key, she walked in to see Tony lying on the floor.

"He was tremoring so hard that his head was hitting the door." Tony recalls that moment vividly, as well as the offer Jonnalee made as she helped him to his chair.

"She said, 'Tony, do you want to come live with me?' Without a heartbeat I just said, 'Yes. Please.'"

"People don't understand what mobility is, how much it means," Jonnalee said. "He can't brush his teeth, he can't wash his face, he can't feed himself. So I put him first."

When it came to Tony's life at the Davis home, Jonnalee spared no measure in making sure he could get around. That meant building ramps on each entrance to the house, even clearing out a wall in the dining room so he could better fit there. She said her and Jed's main goal has been to ensure he maintains as much of his lifestyle as possible. And they both knew maintaining that lifestyle would mean taking plenty of trips to Howard Prairie Lake.

"We vowed to not let it stop us from still taking Tony to all those places and fishing with him," Jed said. He had decided early on that nothing would come between Tony and his love of fishing, event if his MS meant Jed sometimes had to take him out of his power chair and piggy-back him to the pier.

Along with their friend, A.J. Bova, they launched a radio show dedicated to fishing. With a personality to match its name, "Show Us Your Hole" airs Saturdays and Sundays on KZZE 106.3. The show targets younger fishing fans, but also seeks to promote outdoor activities for members of the handicapped community.

Jed and A.J. are in talks with several networks about adapting their show into a television series. That would mean traveling the country, visiting fishing holes along the way. Jed's vision for the show always included bringing Tony along. But in order to make good on that, they would have to change the way got him around. Moving Tony in and out of his chair could take up to an hour, and the trauma to his body caused by so much moving lasted days.

With the help of Rogue Federal Credit Union, they set up the Anthony Lipman Account in June to help Tony and other disabled people enjoy healthier lives through outdoor activities. Their hope in setting up the fund was to raise enough money to buy a handicap-accessible van for Tony. But that was going to cost in the neighborhood of $10,000.

So no one was more surprised than Tony when, after just four days and some sizeable donations, the fund totaled $7,600. As far as the down payment on a van went, Tony was in the clear.

Today, his green Ford van sits in the driveway of the Davis's home, courtesy of Rick Bohr, owner of Rick's Low Mile Gems in Medford. There is plenty of space inside the van, in addition to one special accessory: an electric-powered ramp, capable of loading Tony, power chair and all, in a matter of seconds.

"It's just a godsend that we have that van," Jonnalee said. Recalling the joy on Tony's face when he first saw the van is enough to move her to tears. And to the people who have rallied around their family's cause, she gives thanks.

"We have such a generous community here," she said.

They still need $3,500 to make the final payment on the van. But it has changed their lives dramatically in the month they have had it. Tony recently went to Bi-Mart. It was the first time he had been inside a grocery store in two years.

"He went through Bi-Mart going 'I can't believe I'm in here!'" Jonnalee said. "Just being able to hear those sounds detaches him from his MS, and he feels better."

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