ALS The Lalji Family’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Strength

COVER STORY | By M.G. Angulo –

Zade, Shelena, Ayeez and Zoe Lalji. Photo by Kirven Photography.

Nearly a year ago, Dr. Ayeez Lalji was in the best shape of his life. It was typical of him to run, hike, bike or exercise five to six days a week, plus the 51-year-old husband, father and dentist was meticulously mindful of diet and overall health.

“People would always ask him how he looked so young and healthy,” said his 17-year-old daughter Zoe.  Fourteen-year-old son Zade concurred.  “I always looked up to my father’s drive and motivation to be healthy and in shape.”

Then on July 1, 2017, Ayeez fractured his ankle during a hike and everything began to change. By September, he began experiencing muscle twitches and increasing weakness. He and his wife, Dr. Shelena Lalji, consulted experts from around the world in both the traditional and functional medical fields, and a multitude of tests were initiated to determine the cause of Ayeez’ plight. Many doctors searched for any plausible cause for Ayeez’ symptoms.  Their focus was on eliminating every other possibility that could potentially lead to Ayeez’ symptoms, and every day, the Lalji family prayed for the diagnosis to be something else, anything else.  But in the end, they were left with the one diagnosis they feared most: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS.

Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is neurodegenerative disease that attacks the upper and lower motor neurons in the body needed for muscles to function.  Public awareness of the disease increased with the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014 that raised $115 million in efforts to treat ALS and support ALS patients.  This loss of function prevents voluntary muscle movement, such as chewing, walking, talking and even breathing. ALS, however, does not affect a person’s cognitive abilities, hearing, sight, smell, taste or touch.

“It’s like being trapped in your own body,” said Zoe. “You slowly become a prisoner in your own body and a spectator in your own life as your body betrays you, muscle by muscle, limb by limb.”

On average people with ALS will live two to five years after the first signs of the disease. Two out of every 100,000 people are affected, and every 90 minutes another person is diagnosed or dies from the disease.  While there are therapies and medications to make patients more comfortable and reduce suffering, there is no cure for ALS nor is there an effective treatment to halt, reverse or slow down the disease’s progression.

“There is currently no effective treatment besides the two FDA approved drugs, Riluzole and Radicava, neither of which offer much hope. There is no cure for this disease that destroys families, taking parents away from their kids,” said Zade. “This needs to change and fast.”

Fighters Against the Odds

Ayeez and Zade Lalji.

Ayeez’ wife, Dr. Shelena Lalji, medical director and owner of Dr. Shel Wellness and Aesthetic Center in Sugar Land, has watched this disease mercilessly tear at a man who she endearingly describes as compassionate, adventurous, independent and loving during their 20 years of marriage.

“Ayeez is the most romantic man you could ever meet, extremely thoughtful, an incredible father who has instilled strong values and work ethics in our children and has loved and guided them through every stage of their lives,” said Shelena. “He’s every girl’s dream come true.”

To get such a diagnosis is terrifying, debilitating and can leave a person suspended between disbelief and devastation. The Laljis can attest to that, but the reality of the disease plaguing Ayeez’ body has motivated the family to aggressively push for a change. It has made fierce fighters of them all.

“I feel that it is the responsibility of our generation to take the important work of the ones who came before us and build upon it to finally find a cure for this devastating disease,” said Zade, who hopes to become a neurologist and help families suffering from terminal diseases like ALS.

“This is an extremely rare and ruthless disease,” said Shelena. “When were first told of the diagnosis. it was extremely difficult to process and accept. Ayeez’ progression is uncharacteristically rapid. This fast pace has stricken us the hardest because we are under a time constraint to find treatment to reverse his condition. Every single day counts and not one day goes by where I don’t reach out to more experts or research new findings.  We have organized a wonderful research team consisting of people who really care for Ayeez, our family and our mission, and we are so grateful to them all. Though extremely trying, we continue to be grateful for our blessings, and lean on our faith, our hope and love for each other.”

Zoe, Ayeez, Shelena and Zade Lalji.

The Laljis have made it part of their mission to utilize an integrative approach combining the best of traditional and functional medicine for neurodegenerative conditions, taking into account infectious processes such as lyme, toxins such as heavy metals and mold, nutritional deficiencies, gut health, anti-inflammatory foods, antioxidants, stress management, meditation, sleep, detoxification, and hormone and adrenal balancing. “We truly believe that the cure is going to be a cocktail of combined therapies addressing a multitude of areas,” said Ayeez.

Despite being in the grips of ALS and facing increasing difficulty with tasks he used to be able to approach with ease months ago, Ayeez’ focus has not only been on fighting for himself, but others as well. “Ayeez is a fighter,” said Shelena. “He fights with everything he’s got every moment of every day to beat this nobly, with grace, humility and gratitude.  He has been a beacon of inner strength, love and courage.”

Ayeez and Shelena Lalji.

This vigor would not surprise anyone who knows Ayeez, who Shelena calls “a self-made man.”  He is a prominent and successful dentist and owner of Royal Dental and Lake Point Dental & Specialty, and he was appointed chairperson of the Texas Statewide Health Coordinating Council, but he is a man who came from meager means. “He grew up with nothing and became a self-made entrepreneur,” shared Shelena. “He is equally passionate about his community and giving back to it.”

That giving spirit is one of the catalysts that drove Ayeez to create a foundation with his family — the Lalji ALS Foundation. While Ayeez may have lost some of his independence, he has not lost an ounce of his devotion to caring for others.

“One of his driving forces is his determination to do his part in finding a cure for this disease and giving hope to other patients with ALS and their families,” Shelena said. “This is why we started a foundation, with the mission to create a world where ALS is a treatable and manageable disease rather than an underfunded and terminal one.”

The Lalji ALS Foundation

Zoe, who is manning the foundation, insists that by starting the Lalji ALS Foundation, the ALS community can stop reinventing the wheel and use the foundation’s website as a platform of treatment options and hope. “Our goal is to bring together research efforts from all over the world instead of having multiple global attempts that may be working independently,” Zoe explained.

To achieve this goal, the Laljis are working closely with ALS Therapy Development Institute, a nonprofit research facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts focused solely on discovering and developing treatments for ALS. It is funded by a global network of supporters and is the world’s first and largest nonprofit biotech one hundred percent focused on ALS. The foundation also plans to collaborate with Houston Methodist Clinic and others around the world.

While other diseases receive copious amounts of attention and funding, ALS does not, which is crushing to Zade. “We need to create much more awareness of this disease,” he said. “ALS research has a long way to go, but there is a lot of potential, and unfortunately, just not enough funding.”

Funds donated to the Lalji ALS Foundation will used for ALS treatment and cure research, as well as to provide financial assistance to families with medical, lifestyle and care taking needs. “The fight for a cure has only just begun and is starting to gain momentum,” said Zoe. “The cure is out there; we just have to find it.”

Faith, Hope and Visualization

Ayeez Lalji.

The days and nights are hard on the Laljis as they incorporate the effects of the disease into their daily lives. There are moments of doubt, panic and utter fear. There are waves of anger and the drowning sensation of despair. But then there are moments of clear, calm focus.

“We are still of an extremely positive mindset,” said Shelena. “We’re focusing on the mind and spirit because we truly believe in the power of the mind to heal the body.  We have lots of faith, and we will do everything in our power to reverse this process.”

Shelena shared that community support has been incredibly healing as well. “Our family is overwhelmed and truly humbled by the amount of love, support and prayers we have received.  We believe very strongly in the power of prayers.  It is times like these that we realize the amazing community we live in.”

Zoe stressed positive visualization is also key to seeing clearly that which can be done. “I visualize my dad walking and running again,” she said. “I visualize him doing the things he loved to do, because it is a huge motivator and a driving force. I visualize the day we find the cure.”

The Lalji ALS Foundation

The mission of the Lalji ALS Foundation is to bring awareness and innovation to finding a cure for ALS.

“So many thousands of lives are impacted by this ruthless disease, and it is time to give them a voice and a reason to fight,” said Dr. Shelena Lalji. “Join the fight for a cure now to make a significant difference – to give hope.”

Ayeez Lalji.

At the forefront of the foundation and its mission is 17-year-old Zoe Lalji. “This is a disease that has a lot of potential to be treated if given the right attention and the right awareness,” shared Zoe. “Although we may feel that our efforts alone are insignificant, we have the ability to make a huge impact by merely raising awareness and educating others about this disease.”

The foundation provides financial support, information and hope to families dealing with ALS. More information about the Lalji ALS Foundation can be found at