Michael McGrath: A Man On A Mission To Inspire You To Greatness
The inspirational founder of The Muscle Help Foundation charts his journey from muscular dystrophy diagnosis to the North and South Poles, and outlines his mission to transform the lives of 657 people affected by the genetic muscle-wasting condition
“Muscular dystrophy is slowly destroying my life. But I’ve chosen to fill my life with experiences. I’m on this mission and I live life to the full. For me life is absolutely no dress rehearsal.”
Michael McGrath vividly remembers his first encounter with muscular dystrophy.
“I remember being on the squash court and falling down for no reason,” he says. “I was 18 years old. Fit, strong, healthy, ambitious. I was very active. Very competitive. I played a lot of squash. I played rugby. I wanted to be a pro golfer and was taught by the BBC’s golf commentator Alex Hay.
“After I fell down I jumped up and got on with the game but in the back of my mind I started to realise something wasn’t right.” After seeing countless consultants McGrath “ended up on the slab like a guinea pig” at the British College of Naturopathy and Osteopathy in London.
I just thought my life imploded.
He was probed and prodded and referred to a specialist who, after “a number of uncomfortable biopsies” eventually diagnosed him with muscular dystrophy (MD), a destructive genetic condition that had been lurking dormant in his DNA. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “I just thought my life imploded.”
A LIFE WELL LIVED
Reflecting on that dark period in his life and the 33 years that have passed since, it’s clear McGrath didn’t let MD stand in his way.
Within 20 years of diagnosis he was married, had become a father and, despite his deteriorating condition, he’d become the first disabled person in the world to lead expeditions to both the North and South Pole.
Out of this remarkable feat he conceived The Muscle Help Foundation (MHF), his family-run charity that’s devoted to providing life-changing experiences for children and young people with MD and allied neuromuscular conditions.
We focus on providing 657 Muscle Dreams for those whose muscles are broken.
“The charity’s focus is on providing 657 ‘Muscle Dreams’ for those whose muscles are broken — that’s one for every muscle in the human body,” says McGrath, speaking exclusively to the 657Journal.
This January MHF partnered with Upbeat Active and together launched the #657challenge to help champion their cause and broadcast the importance of muscle health to the nation.
“There’s a natural synergy between our two organisations,” McGrath says. “Part of the mission is to put a spotlight on MD but if we can engage the nation’s appetite in learning about muscles and what they enable them to do then that’s pretty cool.”
COMING OF AGE
McGrath isn’t shy about his own battles with MD. Despite the immeasurable setbacks he’s faced, he refuses to play the martyr. Respectful, eloquent, humble, fiercely passionate, he returns to the painful memories of his diagnosis in 1984.
He was diagnosed with Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy, which causes weakness and wasting of the muscles in the arms and legs.
It’s progressive, it’s deteriorative and it’s relentless.
“Muscular dystrophy is a cruel and unforgiving disease,” he says. “Boys and young men are most commonly affected. It gradually causes the muscles to weaken, robbing sufferers of their mobility, independence and finally, for those with the most severe form, their lives. There’s no cure or treatment. It’s progressive, it’s deteriorative and it’s relentless.”
At the start of his adult life when most 18-year-olds are starting to realise their physical potential and enjoy their independence, McGrath’s life stopped.
“It was a really difficult time to be brutally honest,” he says, calling this period in his life his “Cast Away moment” in reference to the final scene in Tom Hanks’ iconic movie.
“Tom Hanks has been through hell and back,” McGrath explains. “But he survives and delivers on his promise to deliver the FedEx package he crashed with. For me that encapsulates how I chose to live my life but the Cast Away moment was my diagnosis.”
Having delivered the package Hanks lays a map out on the hood of his car and looks north, south, east and west.
I had no idea what life was going to throw at me.
“He has no idea what he’s going to do. For me that was the exact way I felt. I had no idea what life was going to throw at me. It was a pretty fearful, uncertain place. It was a pretty dark time.”
At first, he blamed his mother who was the carrier of the mutant gene [MD is a genetic condition that can remain dormant in carriers — McGrath has two older brothers, one has the same MD as him while his older brother remains unaffected]. “I made her life a misery. I made her life hell for a couple of years. I blamed her for everything and it was hard for her.
“That was a natural response and I talk to a lot of the families about guilt. It runs through a lot of the families but in some ways our intervention [through the Muscle Dreams] provides hope. It uplifts confidence, it’s kind of a crossroads for them because they realise there’s so much more to life.”
MASTER OF DESTINY
Eventually McGrath realised the destination he needed to head was north.
In 2002, having carved out a career in the corporate world, he heard of a property developer called Chris Cope who was planning an expedition to the North Pole to raise money for MD.
“It unlocked an adventurous spirit within me,” he says. “I realised my values weren’t aligned with the business world anymore and I decided I wanted to become the master of my own destiny.
That’s the way I’m wired. I set the task, set the goal and said we’re going to make this happen.
“I was very unsettled at that time and part of my personal journey was learning about my own inner being, recognising my strengths and playing to my weaknesses. The added challenge of having a deteriorative muscle wasting condition really just provided me with the additional fuel and motivation I needed.
“That’s the way I’m wired. I just set the task, set the goal and said we’re going to make this happen. It was a chance to see what I was capable of and an authentic way to raise awareness of MD.”
NORTH AND SOUTH
Ahead of the North Pole expedition, McGrath was still able to walk short distances aided with a stick, yet other muscle weakening symptoms of MD and his fear of failure needed to be overcome.
“People with MD feel the cold, particularly in their extremities. To prepare I trained in this huge deep-freeze unit in Norfolk to assess how my body would behave in extreme cold.”
With the entire Arctic a huge network of melting and refreezing icebergs, the journey was high risk, regardless of his symptoms. After landing on the Arctic ice cap, having travelled via Heathrow, Oslo and then finally Svalbard on a Russian AN-74, the runway split in two.
I couldn’t feel my legs, couldn’t feel my toes.
“They had to wait 36 hours for the runway to freeze again so they could take off,” he says. “On the ice I was upright so I was still able to walk slowly but I couldn’t feel my legs due to losing 65% of my muscle bulk and an inability to shiver. My lower body felt numb.”
True to his word, McGrath reached the Pole and returned home. Yet before his legs had even thawed he began charting his route south.
“Antarctica, the South Pole, was a completely different ball game,” he says. “Between 2002 and 2004 my muscles deteriorated further. Being on the ice was miserably, miserably cold. I can’t ever begin to tell you how cold it was.
“I remember arriving at 90˚ South with a pounding headache and feeling nauseous. You’re hours and hours away from anything. It’s 9,500m above sea level, bitterly cold. I was exhausted, just a complete mess.
After Antarctica my life changed dramatically.
“On reaching the South Pole I phoned my wife in Buntingford on the SAT phone. It was the most expensive phone call of my life, $102 per minute, and I didn’t speak for the first two minutes because I completely lost it. Eventually I managed to utter the words, ‘Babe, I’m here’.”
In total he spent 15 days in Antarctica, travelling the last 5km strapped in a supine position in an adapted pulk and walking the last 350 metres. The expedition raised £50,000 for charity.
Out of these immense physical and psychological trials, McGrath conceived the idea of The Muscle Help Foundation. “After Antarctica my life changed dramatically,” he says. “The charity was born.”
THE POWER OF 657
“The North and South Pole provided the platform for the charity to be conceived,” says McGrath. “I was shredded physically, mentally and emotionally. It almost killed me but without those experiences we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”
MHF has three clear goals. McGrath and his team personally host every one of their experiences — and all wear the same T-shirts to show they’re all equal. Every Muscle Dream is very individual and highly personalised. And thirdly, the charity’s complete focus is on delivering 657 Muscle Dreams, one for every muscle in the human body.
Every time we deliver a Muscle Dream that is my fuel.
Because of the founder’s personal journey, families establish an immediate rapport with the charity. “We build a lasting relationship with the families,” says McGrath. “They become part of our ‘Muscle Warrior tribe’. That gives them a sense of identity and belonging and that’s so powerful.”
And the benefits go both ways. “Every time we deliver a Muscle Dream that is my fuel,” McGrath adds. “To witness the best day of a young person’s life is such a privilege. It’s the fuel that drives me.”
THE GODFATHER OF INTERVIEWS
Pressed on a Muscle Dream that stands out, McGrath tells the story of 27-year-old Suhayl Afzal. His mother nominated Afzal, asking if it would be possible for him to interview Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. “Nothing like setting the bar high,” says McGrath.
After 12 months of covert and exhaustive string pulling and favour calling, the MHF team secured a 90-minute interview with Pacino in the famous Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia Hotel.
Each Muscle Dream has its own story to tell.
“He was clearly a film buff because the questions he asked were quite extraordinary,” says McGrath, who then introduced Afzal to Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin to help get his interview published.
“Sadly a few months later Suhayl got pneumonia and died,” he says. “I’m still in touch with his family but it goes to show that each Muscle Dream has its own story to tell.
“Every one is transformative. They provide hope and uplift confidence and we see the joy within the families that we work with. It’s just a massive privilege.”
To date MHF have delivered 241 Muscle Dreams. Together with Upbeat Active’s support and the #657challenge McGrath feels confident the charity can help transform more lives like Afzal’s and move closer to the magic number of 657.
“Every penny raised for our little charity goes towards delivering more Muscle Dreams,” he says. “The number 657 is important because there’s an emotional engagement with our cause. Our #powerof657 campaign is rooted in everything we do so the link with the #657challenge and #fuel657 campaign all ties in perfectly.
“And there’s a huge opportunity to elevate people’s understanding of something many people take for granted. It takes 10 muscles to smile, six to frown, but one to make a difference. That’s the difference I hope this partnership’s going to make.”
It takes 10 muscles to smile, six to frown, but one to make a difference.
The hour speaking to McGrath has flown by, carried along by his infectious enthusiasm and positivity, even when revisiting the darker days in the rich tapestry of his 51 years.
He signs off by reinforcing his single-minded objective. “I’m a man on a mission to deliver all 657 Muscle Dreams,” he says. “To date we’ve delivered 241, leaving 416 to go. At our current rate of 25–30 per year that’ll take over 13 years to achieve.
“I can’t think in those terms because of my condition. That doesn’t mean I’m planning on checking out in a year or two. We have work to do. Come hell or high water” — or frozen ice caps — “we’ll get there.”