Defying Disease

Will Belles and his service dog Oke at commencement. (Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
May 21, 2018

Some days, international studies graduate Will Belles ‘18 battled on the intramural hockey court like a normal, healthy college student. Other days, he hovered in one spot on the court barely able to catch his breath.

Symptoms began at age 10 when Belles showed signs of restless legs syndrome. Within a couple years, he had surgery to lengthen his Achilles tendons. He quit summer baseball and tried theater for a few years until that became too difficult.

Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 12, the disease could slow him down one day, yet not bother him another. Doctors first suspected the Duchenne strand because of muscle deterioration, then they investigated the Becker strand because of decreased lung capacity. None of his symptoms ever aligned with a known disease pattern.

By his high school graduation, Belles decided to forgo further diagnostic tests.

“It wasn’t worth years of tests to pinpoint it because there’s no cure for MD,” he said. “Naming it won’t help. The best I can do is live my life and pay it forward to help people. One day I may not be able to do something, so I’ll do everything while I can.”

Belles’ college search focused on schools’ walkability. He found Bradley on a career interest survey that noted the compact campus. The information also noted the small class sizes, which would make it easier to be open about physical concerns.

“I had a feeling about Bradley,” he said. “There was no question it was the one school that met my needs.”

Belles stepped far beyond his comfort zone to cope with muscular dystrophy in college. As he joined new groups, the introvert who socially struggled in high school became a laid-back, humorous addition. He played a year of intramural softball and then joined friends in floor hockey. Off the field, he joined Bradley’s tabletop games and “Magic: The Gathering” clubs.

“Being involved in clubs forced me to be around people I didn’t know and make friends,” he said. “It unintentionally became a distraction from my disability that made it easier to be positive.”

Belles’ took his biggest risk in January 2018. He wanted to study abroad since his freshman year, but initially dismissed the idea because of his disease. Three years later, he was in France for a January interim experience. He managed long sightseeing days with a few rest stops. The university also upgraded his seat on the international flights to and from Paris.

The experience affirmed his ability to overcome limitations.

“One of the greatest things I’ve learned is knowing this disease doesn’t change who I am,” he said. “I can mitigate it and stay active.”