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As the Christmas season enters its hectic and stressful stage, Jim Pearson slows down to pursue his beloved mission to raise awareness on the iconic pioneer wooden country grain elevator that has all but disappeared from the western Canadian landscape.

Pearson, who has authored two books on grain elevators and is working on a third, does so with boundless enthusiasm, despite facing recent personal challenges that would have forced most people to sideline such passions.

For most of his life the 51-year-old Pearson has been living with Asperger's syndrome, a form of high functioning autism. Last week, he received disturbing news when it was announced Asperger's syndrome will be dropped from the American psychiatrists' Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, an influential international professional reference guide.

“I'm not sure about it being de-listed and put into the general autism category. I knew a few autistics before I got diagnosed, and always thought it was debilitating,” said Pearson. “Myself, I never fit in with the other kids, having weird interests like science fiction, bionics, Star Trek, the Roadrunner and stuff like that which made me quite the outsider.

“One the other hand look what I can do with this disability - draw star ships, worked with Starlog Press in New York City for seven years doing military stuff, and now this stuff with the elevator history.”

Coupled with trudging forward with Asperger’s, Pearson has been caring for his ailing parents this year, which included the selling of the family home in Delia and ensuring their health needs were met in Rocky Mountain House and Drumheller, where Pearson moved in September. With his parents’ interests finally settled, Pearson hoped he would be able to devote more attention to his grain elevator research.

But something inside him was not quite right. For many weeks prior to the move he was experiencing increasingly disturbing signs his health was also in peril.

“I was noticing I was getting more tired than usual and was coughing, sometimes uncontrollably for about 15 weeks, and nothing seemed to stop it,” said Pearson. “I thought it was caused by the stress of all of the problems that happened this summer. I think what really set off the alarms was after I moved to Drumheller. I was walking around Walmart when I felt all of the energy drain out of me, like a light switch flicking off.”

In late October he saw a doctor. His spleen was found to be severely enlarged. Blood tests were ordered. The news was bad. His white blood cell count was 25 times higher than normal.

Pearson had cancer, specifically chronic myelogenous leukaemia. It is a cancer of the white blood cells.

After spending a week in Calgary’s Peter Lougheed hospital, and receiving chemotherapy, saline and tyrosine-kinase inhibitor treatment, his white blood cell count fell by 50 per cent. It later achieved a normal range and Pearson’s prognosis at first appeared good. But two weeks ago he had another setback. His platelet level crashed. Pearson’s doctors took him off his medication.

“It seems the drugs they've been using have worked maybe too well,” said Pearson. “As of yesterday (Dec. 3) the white cells, hemoglobin and platelet levels have gone to dangerously low levels, and I was told to ge another blood count done to see if they are going up or something. Only then can we figure out what to do.”

Meanwhile, the setback has not deterred Pearson from his work. He is busy updated his first book from 2007, Vanishing Sentinels: The Remaining Grain Elevators of Alberta and British Columbia. The revamped book will feature new information from the Canadian Grain Commission, along with new photographs and maps. As well, the update will have a 13th chapter on elevators demolished over the last decade.

“For a couple of weeks before I was diagnosed I wasn't sure if I was going to continue with the project,” said Pearson. “I felt extremely low energy wise, and almost gave up at one point. But after getting the diagnosis, sitting in the hospital for a week and learning the condition was improving, I managed to get back some hope and kept my willpower strong, especially with some friends and family coming over to visit, which helped a lot.”

With the holiday season fast approaching Pearson is also busy creating his popular card stock elevators for Christmas trees. He will sell these this month at fairs in Drumheller and East Coulee.

But the big immediate project is his 2013 Alberta and Saskatchewan grain elevator calendars. The Alberta version features a cover with a 1978 photograph of the Wayne grain elevators while inside the calendar will include modern-day shots of the vators in Wrentham, Raley, Mossleigh, Radway, Forestburg, and Warner.

And if that is not enough Pearson is also working on his third book, Vanishing Sentinels Volume III: The Remaining Grain Elevators of Eastern Saskatchewan. He hopes to release it in either late 2013 or early 2014.

“Seeing the elevators disappear from the skyline is like watching an old friend die,” said Pearson. “You're never going to see them again but you will always remember them. Those buildings helped settle the prairies, for without them, many communities today would have never existed.”

For more information on Pearson’s books, calendars or card stock elevators contact him by email at ncc2920@telusplanet.net or cellphone at (403) 650- 6940.

—Johnnie Bachusky is an Alberta journalist and ghoster
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