The imagery that lie before me seared into my subconscious tormenting me for weeks -- that gray, rotted look of cauliflower representing parts of my mother's dead brain cells. The reduction in brain size rendered me speechless. Even a faux neurologist like myself could tell those neurons no longer fired. On the wall, next to the lighted board that held mom's MRI results, were several photos of a healthy brain. The contrast played like a cruel joke.
I sat silently as the doctor tried to soften the blow. Mom on the other hand looked befuddled and confused, unsure what all this meant. The doctor continually grabbed her hands, stroking them ever so gently in a calm, reassuring voice. Mom had not grasped the gravity of the situation and wondered why the doctor spoke to her so. She was never one to truly comprehend even basic scientific knowledge, trusting the medical expert to tell her what to do in layman's terms.
I thought mom still had a little bit of time before she lost what was left of her memory; after all, she still had decent cognitive function. What led us to the Cleveland Clinic in the first place was her dogged determination to find out why she couldn't remember certain aspects of her life. It took three years of fighting with multiple primary care physicians before we got a referral to the clinic. The primary care physicians thought mom's memory loss was nothing more than the rants of an old woman -- 72 at the time -- but mom knew better.
It fell to me on the drive home to explain Alzheimer's in terms mom could easily comprehend. She didn't understand things like degenerative disease, and clinical explanations like plaques, tangles and neurons. I distilled all this medical jargon into easy to understand terms, leaving out some of the gory details. Once I finished my simplistic explanation, a river of tears cascaded down her face. After arriving at her home, we both sat in silence looking at the television, me afraid to speak for fear of upsetting her further.
I left for home well after dark, my mind racing from sadness to the monumental task that lie ahead. I'd seen the devil's disease at work from a distance as my grandmother suffered from dementia, and later my grandfather.
How long would it be before mom would start losing the ability to care for herself? The answer came just ten days after that early April 2013 diagnosis. The panic was real as she sat in her parked car unable to figure out which key cranked the ignition. She called the only number she could remember without looking in her phone book -- mine. I removed the car from her home within an hour. She never drove again.
From there, the deterioration in cognitive function proceeded gradually. To an outsider looking in, it might have been imperceptible, but now I was on alert. The slightest hiccup in her normal routine became a cause for concern.
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