Wednesday, April 18, 2012

We Need a Cure

Today I read about Pat Summitt, the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team, resigning from her position. She has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Although she will remain as Head Coach Emeritus, the disease has apparently taken enough to render her less than what she wants to be.

Sadly, there's no place left but down for her from now on. Alzheimer's steals the person you are, bit by evil bit. It turns you into someone you would never want to be. It kills slowly, cell by cell, over a tortuously long time.

It needs to be stopped.

Reading of Coach Summitt today, I was brought back to memories of my grandmother. Her mind started to deteriorate from the same disease shortly after my grandfather died, and my aunt cared for her until it finally took her life.

I remember being in the kitchen with her as she tried to give my mother directions to some place that was very real to her, but it existed only in her imagination. I didn't know what to think of the way she acted. What did her wild pointing, gesturing and disjointed conversation mean? Was she acting this way because she was going off the deep end due to grief, or was there something physically wrong with her?

It was scary.

Grandma's actions became more and more unpredictable and seemingly insane. She would wander in a path from room to room, talking to herself all the while, and repeat the path over and over again. She didn't sleep. She forgot to dress in the morning. She didn't know who we were or where she was. She developed a fascination with feces, using them to finger paint the walls of the bathroom.

Finally, and to our great relief, my aunt found another place for her to live. Grandma spent her final days in a nursing home, unable to speak, feed or dress herself.

I hadn't seen her for almost a year when I decided to visit for the last time. I took my young son and my sister with me and drove for five hours to get to the place where she lived. When I walked in, I asked for her and was pointed to a frail-looking woman who was restrained in a wheelchair. I would never have recognized her on my own. She had changed so much over that short period of time that she was a stranger to me.

Grandma had always been a big woman. She did the work of most men and ate accordingly. But the woman I saw in front of me was not Grandma.  This woman was shriveled, her once-large frame merely skin and bones.  She babbled incoherent syllables when she tried to speak, and it was obvious she didn't know who any of us were. 

I was devastated.  Unseeing, I flew out the door of the building, leaving my son and sister inside.  I had been there less than five minutes. 

Grandma died a few months later, and most of us thought it was a blessing.

Since that time my sister and I have lived with the knowledge that Alzheimer's is, to some degree, hereditary.  Thankfully, it hasn't shown up in either of us, but the thought is always at the back of our minds.  Forgetting someone's name, where the keys are, or not remembering which way to turn at a familiar intersection are things that can send us into "What if....?" mode.  It's hard to ignore, but we do it in order to survive.

And so it is that I feel for Pat Summitt.  I understand her pain and her fear of the future.  She epitomized the word "class" for many of us, and I hope she continues to do so for a long time to come.

In the meantime, we'll hope and pray for a cure.

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