Keep Grinding: Guest Author Jimmer Szatkowski
When Jimmer Szatkowski isn’t operating two new, wildly popular Chick-fil-A franchises in Upstate New York, he’s donating his time, giving back to the community, and consistently running around making things happen, literally.
That’s why after completing one of his usual half-marathons in late 2020, after months of doggedly working to get his first restaurant and the construction of a second restaurant through the COVID-19 pandemic, Jimmer started to feel unusually tired.
“I finished a run and it felt super hard. My legs were beat.”
But that didn’t stop him. He brushed off the fatigue and continued to keep his busy daily cadence of running his Chick-fil-A operations, participating in local fundraising events, and being a devoted husband and father to three children. At this point in his life, Szatkowski had earned a sweet second wind in his professional career and personal life. After a successful career as an IBM executive, Jimmer earned a coveted opportunity to join the highly successful restaurant dynasty and move his family back to their original home state of New York. Life down the homestretch was looking very promising for the Szatkowski family.
Tragically, ALS had other plans for Jimmer Szatkowski who was basking in the prime of his life.
He sailed through his annual January physical with a clean bill of health, but the weight of the onset symptoms was creeping in as the opening date of his second restaurant loomed closer.
“I went on a couple of business trips in January and February and walking across these big airports was exhausting.”
As Szatkowski’s usual abundant energy and his ability to maintain his physically demanding, 13-hour workday continued to decline, Jimmer and Betty, his vivacious, dedicated partner of 23 years, decided to seek some answers to Jimmer’s shocking dwindling strength and endurance.
“Having to think about walking is incredibly humbling, painful, and heavy – especially going from running a marathon to taking a five-minute walk and having to sit down.”
After some preliminary tests, they received heavy news from a local neurologist that indicated Szatkowski might have ALS. However, Jimmer was going to have to wait to see another ALS team of specialists to confirm the looming diagnosis. As Jimmer’s symptoms persisted and the grand opening of his second restaurant was just weeks away with much to be done, Jimmer and Betty sat silently with the dreaded possibilities.
“There was a lot of terrible processing going on. That first month was terrible.”
The Szatkowskis quietly endured a month of uncertainty and speculation before Jimmer could undergo a grueling battery of further testing. Then, a renowned specialist with Duke University confirmed his ALS diagnosis on April 19. Jimmer and Betty were both rocked by the confirmation.
“Honestly, I had a full-blown mental health crisis.”
Szatkowski, the former IBM executive, is used to extreme pressure. He’s a typical, gritty, type-A personality who bushwhacked his way through a very difficult and traumatic childhood, the intense rigors of a competitive MBA program, the constant demands of a corporate career, and the consistent, daily maintenance of his ongoing sobriety. He has always been an achiever with an immense amount of faith despite many of his life challenges. However, the thought of having to deliver the news to the Szatkowski children, his community, and his Chick-fil-A family was overwhelming.
“We had the really, really difficult, challenging task of communicating this to our kids first, which there really isn’t an adjective in the English dictionary that appropriately captures how awful that is.”
As a man of faith, Jimmer had to reflect heavily on the new course his life had taken, a path he did not fully understand after overcoming so many other obstacles. This ALS sentence didn’t seem fair. With his second Chick-fil-A location opening within days of his diagnosis, and his middle child about to graduate from high school, his world was shaken. As this tragic news is still fresh and raw for the Szatkowski family, Jimmer constantly worries about what this sudden diagnosis means for his children and his future with them.
“This morning, I saw my 12-year-old son in his bedroom and I thought I might not see him graduate. Yeah….that’s a tough deal.”
Jimmer also faced his biggest spiritual negotiations and divine conversations in those early days post-diagnosis.
“I have a deep faith in God. I have been angry with God. I have questioned God’s will. Although I have never been weaker physically, I have never been stronger spiritually.”
However, Jimmer still struggles between making peace with his diagnosis and his uncertain future. As a husband, father, and business owner, he is responsible for not just his immediate family, but his employees, his relationship with his company partners, and his unwavering connection with his faith. His need to be strong as his physical body is betraying him is a cruel symptom of many ALS patients.
“I have moments every day where I’m sobbing in my hands because the weight of this is too heavy.”
While Jimmer is not alone in processing this news, those close to him are also measuring the impact of the diagnosis and what this means for the future. For Betty, the quintessential capable momager and steady working partner in all facets of the family business, she has had her own reckoning with the news and how this will indefinitely alter the face of their future as a couple and a family.
“This wasn’t in anyone’s plan.”
Jimmer thinks about what gets him through each day as a recently diagnosed ALS survivor. For him, having hope and purpose is key to living with the disease. His daily regimen is almost as busy as it was prior to his diagnosis, albeit a bit slower now and with much more purpose and more physical therapy.
“I have to be really, really smart about how I utilize my energy. I can’t do what I used to do.”
Szatkowski still rises at the crack of dawn; however, his early morning prayers, meditation, and yoga practice are much more mindful and spiritually deeper these days. Not only does he think about his own battle with ALS, but the thousands of others like him. He can no longer slam out a twelve-hour day on his feet or run a marathon. Jimmer is running an entirely different race to find a treatment that will stop his ALS in its tracks.
“Those days are over for now.”
However, in true Szatkowski-like fashion, and with his unwavering faith and steadfast support of Betty and his family, Jimmer does what Jimmer does best each day — keep grinding. With his faith, the support of his family, and an incredible group of friends and doctors, Jimmer and Betty are opening up about his ALS fight so they could help others.
As Jimmer recently went public with his diagnosis, he and Betty found their new calling that supports many of the charitable things the Szatkowski family has been doing anyway — community service and fundraising. Now that ALS is in their sights, the disease has gained another formidable enemy as Jimmer amasses his ALS army.
“It is my intention to fight this and help a lot of people along the way…this has forced me to be a better person…impacting the lives of others is a blessing and a gift.”
One of Szatkowski’s many strengths is making connections, building relationships, and creating successful networks. That, and his robust faith are the personal attributes that helped Jimmer make his way through Chick-fil-A’s notoriously competitive franchisee screening process. Betty recognizes how his big personality, work ethic, and tireless community involvement are going to raise more awareness and infuse fresh ALS fundraising efforts.
“We know there’s a platform here we can really use.”
The Szatkowski family makes a fierce team in the fight against the disease. In just the two short months since Jimmer’s diagnosis, they have already made some vital connections, built a network of prayer and support warriors, and have announced their intentions to raise much-needed funds towards ALS research. They have rapidly caught up with the status of ALS research and development and know that at some point there will be a cure, but also know that ALS research is still significantly underfunded.
For the Szatkowskis, that just doesn’t cut it.
While fighting the disease, they plan to launch their own attack. They know that relentless fundraising is the key to help speed up the research process as ALS patients struggle with the realities of how fast this disease can progress. For Jimmer and Betty, they’ve pivoted all of their fundraising efforts to solely concentrate on a cure for ALS. The Szatkowskis know that it can take just one successful clinical trial to forever change the course of people living with ALS, but money for research is not the only obstacle.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen in six years from now. One of these clinical trials could pop and it’s a game-changer.”
Jimmer and the entire Szatkowski family ask that people imagine what it’s like for their everyday lives to be suddenly interrupted with an unexpected and immediate disability like ALS. Betty recalls how before Jimmer’s ALS diagnosis she used to think about how every day is a gift, as we all do, but now that means so much more as she watches Jimmer struggle with everyday tasks. She and other ALS caregivers have a front-row seat to the anguish of watching their loved one’s strengths and abilities succumb to the disease.
“That whole idea of ‘live for today because we don’t know about tomorrow’…intellectually I knew that, but getting this diagnosis, you really feel it now…I don’t think I’ve ever had to say it with my heart.”
Jimmer and Betty are dedicated to living each day they have together with purpose. In their new mission to help find new treatments for ALS, they are seeking every day people like themselves to stop for just a moment and think about what a diagnosis like ALS would do to them and their family. They ask that we join their fight to help Jimmer and thousands like him beat this life-altering disease. Money and time are what ALS warriors like the Szatkowski need, and they’re asking for just one minute out of our day to donate to Jimmer’s new one-man marathon. He’s optimistic about his chances, but he knows the finish line towards successful treatment is in the distance.
“There is so much more I want to see and I intend to see it, but I’m not naïve about the nature of this disease. It’s a race against time.”
Jimmer and the Szatkowski family are now on a new mission: to beat ALS. Szatkowski likes to think he was personally chosen to go after this disease and win. Your generous donation to Augie’s Quest to Cure ALS will spread hope for Jimmer and countless others living with ALS, their families, caregivers, and friends. With every gift, you help fast-track effective treatments and an ultimate cure for this devastating disease.