Augie’s Quest: the Journey From Success to Significance

by Pam Peeke, M.D.

Helen Keller once noted that, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” She should know. She was the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree, and followed that accomplishment with a distinguished career as a renowned author, lecturer and political activist. As a physician, I’ve often marveled at the extraordinary courage, audacity and fearlessness exhibited by people like Keller, who, when confronted with severe and often life-threatening adversity, push through their own despair and instead use their difficult challenge to help others.

Which brings me to the remarkable story of my good friend Augie Nieto.

As the founder of Life Fitness, one of the world’s leading makers of exercise equipment for the gym, Augie quickly rose to the rank of an international fitness industry icon. An overweight teen, he headed to gyms to seek help shedding the weight and getting fit. Instead of salvation, he was disappointed to find subpar cardio and weight apparatuses. He saw this equipment dilemma as a call to arms that led him to work tirelessly and successfully as he founded Life Fitness. This steadfast determination has served him well.

After selling the company, Augie moved on to become an industry expert, including joining me as an operating advisor to North Castle Partners, a private equity firm focused on companies working within the healthy, active and sustainable living sectors. Teaming on projects, Augie and I developed a unique bond and rhythm. We were, first and foremost, gym rats. On business trips, we’d meet in the hotel lobby after awakening at the crack of dawn, head out to a local gym, sweat through some high-intensity cardio, lift weights and end our early morning ritual by grabbing coffee to go while racing to get ready for our meetings. 

And then, in 2005, Augie reached out to me with troubling news. He’d been experiencing a puzzling loss of strength and muscle twitching, which was being assessed by his medical team. As we awaited the results of his evaluation, my medical mind ruminated about the differential diagnosis, concluding none of it was good. Days later, at the age of 46, Augie was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There are, on average, 15 people diagnosed with ALS every day, and roughly 30,000 people in America have this condition. ALS symptoms include the progressive loss of control of limbs, speech and the ability to breathe. Some 50 percent of patients live at least two years after diagnosis; 20 percent live five years or more and up to 10 percent survive more than 10 years. Scientists have identified over 100 genetic permutations affecting ALS and neurodegenerative diseases. Treatment options for Augie were slim and none.

excerpt © 2016 U.S. News