The meandering country road, and the prison at the end of it, were untouched frontiers for David Hilfiker.
But, as the Buckingham Correctional Center came into view, he was pricked with a slight twinge of déjà vu. The facility at the end of the lane looked vaguely familiar, but that was to be expected and could easily be explained away as an anomaly born of past experiences.
The archetype of the traditional prison façade was not an unfamiliar sight for David. He had spent a significant portion of his career as a physician providing care and support for drug addicts with HIV and AIDS. He’d also been making regular trips to various prisons to see his friend, convicted murderer Jens Soerig, whom David believes to be innocent.
Preoccupied by his impending visit with Jens, David didn’t give much thought to that brief brush with déjà vu until the center’s chaplain came over to where they were sitting. David’s introduction and outstretched hand caused a quizzical look to cloud the chaplain’s face. “Yeah, I remember. You were here a couple of months ago,” he said.
It was David’s turn to appear perplexed. He’d never been to this particular prison, and he’d certainly never met this particular chaplain.
Always a bad one for remembering names and faces, David brushed off the incident, placing the burden of blame on his chronically shoddy memory.
Once the chaplain had moved on, David looked to Jens for confirmation that he had, in fact, never been to Buckingham before. But his friend refused to lie. “Of course you have. Three or four months ago,” he said.
Still confused, David let the matter drop, spent a few more hours with Jens, and drove home.
After returning home to the townhouse he shared with his wife, Marja (mar-ee-yah) David immediately consulted his calendar. One glance told him everything he needed to know. Jens and the chaplain were right—it was six months to the day since David had first been to Buckingham Correctional Center.
Between driving to and from Buckingham and spending time with Jens, David estimated that the trip he does remember took him about ten hours total. He was flabbergasted; an entire half day had faded from his mind. “I remembered nothing from that visit—I still don’t,” he admits.
And that was only the beginning.
It would take David a few years after the incident at the prison to seek out and receive his diagnosis: mild-cognitive impairment, most likely Alzheimer’s disease.
7 years, 17 minutes
Over two decades of experience as an emergency medical technician (EMT) wasn’t enough to prepare Rick Phelps for what would happen during his final run.
An early morning dispatch led Rick and his team to the house of a four-year-old girl who was in the throes of a serious seizure. A blue hue was beginning to overtake the child’s skin as the oxygen slowly drained from her blood. She survived the trip to the hospital, but an hour’s worth of resuscitation efforts proved ineffective and the young girl died soon after arriving.
Being in the emergency medical field for so long, Rick was no stranger to death. But as the news of the child’s passing washed over him, the veteran responder was astonished by the unusual intensity of his emotions. “This one was different. I knew it was different and I knew I just couldn’t do this type of work anymore,” he says.
Rick had been having trouble remembering important things for some time; the names of streets during dispatches, the meanings of particular codes, the shortcuts that could shave precious seconds off the time it took to respond to an emergency. These instances caused him great concern—what if he made the wrong turn when time was of the essence? What if his mistake cost another human being their life?
It hadn’t happened yet, but the possibility of disaster haunted Rick each time his crew received a call. Torn between a passion for helping those in need, and the fear that one day his mind might betray him, Rick made the heart-wrenching decision to retire.
For nearly seven years, Rick had been mentioning his cognitive concerns to his doctor. The physician first attributed Rick’s troubles to depression, ignited by delayed grief over the death of his daughter, Jody, who passed away suddenly in 1997.
Rick missed Jody terribly, as any father would, but he didn’t think her death was the cause of his problems.
Yielding to the knowledge and experience of his doctor, he agreed to adopt a regimen of antidepressant and antianxiety medications. When the prescriptions failed to make any significant difference in his condition, job stress was named as the next likely culprit.
Again Rick was skeptical; he loved being an EMT, and harbored an abiding passion for the work that trumped any stress inherent to the profession. He resolved to push for an answer that made sense.
Finally, two weeks prior to the call that heralded the end of his EMT career, Rick’s doctor referred him to a neurologist. The specialist performed a series of cognitive functioning tests before calling Rick and his wife, Phyllis June, in for a follow-up appointment.
The life-changing visit with the neurologist lasted 17 minutes. Rick left the office with an Exelon patch and a terminal diagnosis: early-onset dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s disease.
A mother’s instinct
Jean DelCampo had a motherly spirit that pervaded every aspect of her life. When her children were young, she prided herself on keeping an immaculate house and having dinner on the table by 5:00 pm every night.
So when Jean drove by a gentleman on the side of the road who looked tired and alone, she felt compelled to stop and offer him a ride. After driving the man to the next city, he got out of the car and walked off. Before he left, Jean gave him her coat so he wouldn’t catch cold. It was only later that Jean would realize the potential danger that her motherly instincts had exposed her to.
The incident was the latest in a series of unexplained driving mishaps for Jean, who seemed to keep getting lost, even though she knew every street in town. Her doctors said her troubles were being caused by anxiety, bipolar disease, depression—but none of their treatments were very helpful.
Jean eventually moved in with her daughter, Michele De Socio, because she could no longer live safely on her own.
One weekend Michele and her husband went away, leaving Jean in the capable hands of Michele’s sister, Gina. Everyone assumed Jean would make the transition with ease, but soon after Michele and her husband left, Jean suddenly began to shake uncontrollably.
An emergency trip to the hospital led to a stint in a psych ward that Michele refers to as “19 days of hell.” A neurologist eventually ordered a CAT scan that revealed the frontal lobes of Jean’s brain were all but gone, and she was sent to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation.
The doctors still couldn’t decide on Jean’s diagnosis, but the caring mother had made a decision of her own. She knew she was sick and would only get sicker. She would protect her family, even from herself. “I’m not coming home,” she told her daughters. “I want to stay here.”
Soon after Jean’s decision—which Michele and Gina fought tooth and nail—a neurologist eventually named Alzheimer’s as the cause of the older woman’s cognitive troubles.
Diagnosis, Doubt and Denial
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common manifestation of dementia, an umbrella term used to describe a series of brain disorders marked by a variety of cognitive issues, including confusion, hallucinations, memory loss, problems with thinking and reasoning, and eventually, a decline in the ability to perform tasks of daily living (i.e. eating, bathing and dressing).
Gradually fading memories are a well-known hallmark of Alzheimer’s, but the disease affects the brain in other ways as well, many of which are not fully understood by scientists. What is known for certain: Alzheimer’s slowly severs the connections between brain cells, killing neurons and literally shrinking the size of an individual’s brain.