Saturday, July 3, 2010

Good Read: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Hmmm... I can't seem to remember where I left my keys... Where did I park again? I know it was between Unionport Road and Olmstead Avenue, but I can't seem to find my car... Wait a minute, did I just miss my stop? Man, what's going on with me today? OMG! Another umbrella lost and a new charity gift for a wet straphanger who left his or her umbrella at home! That sh#$ wasn't even mine... I forgot to buy the freaking milk again! I knew I was forgetting something!

Has this ever happened to you? You know, a mental lapse? Where for a split second you're completely disoriented, and forget what you were doing or what you were about to do? If this occurs between the ages of 20-50, you just shrug it off as not being focused. You blame it on the stress, your depression, or lack of sleep. If you're between the ages of 55-65, you blame it on your advanced aged status and the fact that it's normal, for a person of advanced age, to forget certain things. If your above 65 years of age, you automatically lean on the fact that at that age, a person's memory is suppose to fail, and that being disoriented, incoherent, and extremely forgetful is totally normal as well. But what if on a hunch, you decide to visit a neurologist and after an extensive evaluation, the MD enters the room and says, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but after several testing, and analysis, my staff and I believe that your memory loss is not due to stress, depression, your menopausal stage, or your advanced age. We believe you're suffering from Alzheimer's Disease."

According to Wikipedia, Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is known as the most common form of dementia. It's an incurable, degenerative and terminal neurological disease, generally diagnosed in people over 65 years of age. Reports indicate that in the early stages, the most commonly observed symptom is the inability of acquiring new memories.

"As the disease advances, symptoms include confusion, irritability and aggression, mood swings, language breakdown, long-term memory loss, and the general withdrawal of the sufferer as their senses decline. Gradually, bodily functions are lost, ultimately leading to death... The mean life expectancy following diagnosis is approximately seven years. Fewer than three percent of individuals live more than fourteen years after diagnosis." (Wikipedia)

The disease slowly but surely begins to progress, and works its way through the brain suffocating healthy neurons and killing them off. What did that neuron hold? Your child's name? Your address? A special someone's birthday? The feeling of Love?

Unfortunately, Alzheimer's doesn't only affect individuals 65 years of age and older. In several less-common cases, individuals less than 65 can suffer from what is known as Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease. The majority of these folks are in their 50's or early 60's, however, in very rare instances, people in their 30's and 40's have been found to have early onset AD as well. Studies indicate that approximately half of the cases of early onset AD are Familial Alzheimer's disease, which means that there was a genetic predisposition that lead to the disease.

Can you imagine how debilitating this would be to a person's family, friends, caregiver, co-workers, and wife? Well I don't have to imagine it. For several years now, I've been able to witness the incredible toll early onset AD can cause on a family from a first hand basis. Although I've considered myself an outsider looking in, I've always felt part of their family. Yes, I've been blessed with that privilege. Which family is it that I speak of? The Peralta family and Mr. Freddy Peralta Sr., who has Alzheimer's.

The incredible thing is that when you spend some time with them, the mom, Mrs. Ana Peralta, a hard working self-made business woman, or the eldest son Freddy Peralta Jr., aka Freddy P, or Alex Peralta aka Arod, a humble man and dear brother to me, or Alana Peralta, my P.P.I.C (Party Partner in Crime), aka my Cupcake, you're immediately moved by they're strength, and perseverance. As an outsider, I've been incredibly touched by their faith, unity and love. They don't know this but, in secret, they are some of my heroes (cue the "Hero" song by Nickelback).

In Still Alice, a novel by Lisa Genova a Harvard Grad Neuroscientist, we visit the incredible life and story of Dr. Alice Howland, a 50 year old tenured professor of Cognitive Psychology at Harvard University who's struck with the cruel symptoms of this devastating disease. Dr. Howland, a highly regarded and respected professor in her field, wife and mother, who suddenly begins to loose a grip on the one thing she had so much control over, and knew so much about. Her own mind.

Author Lisa Genova does an amazing job of telling the story not from an outsider's point of view, as many authors and journalists have done in the past, but from the point of view of the innocent victim Dr. Alice Howland herself. As you turn the pages you'll see yourself becoming Alice, suffering with her and her family, feeling her pain and stress, and even feeling some of the degenerative symptoms.

If you know someone who suffers from Alzheimer's or have a friend who does, or have heard or read of people who do, this is definitely a great read and recommendation. For families struck by this awful disease, it may bring further understanding as to what goes on in the mind of the diseased. It also may answer several unaswered questions, bring clarity to some of the confusion, hope when you thought there was none, and allow you to realize that the loved one who you once shared so many things with, is really "still" there.

Here's what other readers have said about Still Alice.

"Heartbreaking real... So real, in fact, that it kept me from sleeping for several nights. I couldn't put it down... Still Alice is a story that must be told"

-Brunonia Barry, New York Times best selling author of The Lace Reader

"After I read Still Alice, I wanted to stand up and tell a train full of strangers, 'You have to read this book.'..."

-Beverly Beckham, The Boston Globe


For Freddy Sr., Ana, Freddy Jr., Alex & Alana Peralta. Stay strong. I love you guys, and I'm here for you.

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