Alzheimer’s a ‘heartbreaking’ disease

By Kate Arnold

Guest Contributor

“It’s just patient after patient. It’s heartbreaking … it’s kind of like being at work,” my co-worker said of HBO’s new documentary “The Alzheimer’s Project.” I laughed because I understood. As a research coordinator for clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease, I know that all my patients will lose their battle against Alzheimer’s, and yet most days, I’m happy to be at work.

One-tenth of the nation’s Alzheimer’s population lives in California. Among baby boomers age 55 and older, one in eight is expected to develop the disease. San Diego has the highest rate of death due to Alzheimer’s in California. Those statistics now have personal implications to me.

They mean that too many men and women will lose their spouses too early; that too many little girls won’t get to be my age and still have a wise grandmother to look to in difficult times; that too many people will face the terrifying fact that they will slowly lose everything that everyone takes for granted.

Working with this population, you see families robbed of the best years of their lives. You see people you used to have great witty banter with slip into the easy humor of sound effects. You see women call watches wallets, offering the explanation that their mind is “shot.”

And you can’t decide if it’s more depressing to see the earlier cases, where the patients know what’s coming, or the further-along cases, where the patients are in the throes of the disease.

I expected to learn the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the standard treatments and the experimental treatments. And I have, but more importantly, I’ve learned how to be comfortable enough to truly listen to my patients and their families. My patients’ gift to me is that when I’m a doctor, I’ll be able to emotionally meet my patients where they are: whether they’re thrilled at getting a new puppy or crushed because their driver’s license was taken away.

The first patient I met was Robin. She was tan, fit, young, conversive and walked as if the ground were unsteady. Since then, I’ve learned about these kinds of unexpected symptoms. Now, a year later, Robin has declined. She talks less and has difficulty putting her shoes on, but that’s not what her husband sees when he looks at her. He still sees the woman he married, not her deficits. He’s still in love.

I’m 25, getting ready to start medical school and going on first dates, and often I’m terrified about my future. But then I see these couples fighting to enjoy life and each other, while facing the hardest thing I’ve ever seen.

I see marriages dealing with rapidly shifting roles and the knowledge of what lies ahead. As I see my patients’ hope and love, I know these are the bravest people I’ve ever met. And while their courage is inspiring, the situation is still devastating, and we owe it to these people and to the future victims of Alzheimer’s to fight this disease.

I sat in front of Robin’s husband at the preview night of HBO’s Alzheimer’s documentary. As the lights came on during the standing ovation, we applauded together with hundreds of others at the hope that we will someday have a cure for this truly heartbreaking disease.

Kate Arnold received her bachelor’s of science in psychology from Santa Clara University and completed Georgetown’s post baccalaureate premedical program. She will be attending medical school in the fall.