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Alzheimer’s May Steal Memories, But it Can't Steal Love

Don Alzheimers

Does true love last? Don and Corrine Nye know it does. They are the kind of couple who finish each other’s sentences.

Married more than 35 years, they have much to celebrate: Don was a well-known entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. He traveled the globe for work yet still found time to create beautiful furniture in his personal woodworking shop. Corrine built a business working with non-profit boards.

But their full life hit an impasse when Don received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s – a progressive brain disease that destroys memory and function. The road to a diagnosis started with a near-miss accident. Don says, “I was driving home late one evening and didn’t see the turn-off. Corrine and I came close to a major disaster.” This was in 2009.

Corrine adds, “What I didn’t know at the time was that Don had been having memory problems for a while. Here was someone who could recall details of multi-million-dollar scientific protocols – but would forget his regular meetings.”

A visit to the Penn Memory Center

Deeply concerned about the issues at hand, the couple met with Jason Karlawish, MD, associate director of the Penn Memory Center.

“We wanted to determine whether Don’s symptoms, although annoying and noticeable, were part of normal aging or the earliest stages of a neurodegenerative disease,” says Dr. Karlawish.

Don underwent a battery of neurological, functional and psychological tests and was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). With this condition, cognitive skills drop below what is considered normal for a person’s age or education. This condition also put Don at a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s later on.

Clinical trials and a brain donation

Don and Corrine were relieved at the MCI diagnosis. But Don knew he was now working with a deficit and was determined to help himself. As a scientist, he valued research, so he participated in Penn Memory Center clinical trials. He took medication. He even committed to donating his brain after death for research. A brave and generous gift.

However, despite everyone’s valiant efforts, Don’s memory started to fail more noticeably. In 2014, he was re-tested and received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis which, because of symptoms, left him unable to drive or use the high-powered tools in his wood shop.

The couple remains hopeful

Despite setbacks, Corrine emphasizes why they believe in Penn. “Dr. Karlawish is very gentle and listens to our concerns. The Penn Memory Center also provides caregiver programs in a safe, nurturing environment. And of course, there is the ongoing research.”

Dr. Karlawish explains, “One of the breakthroughs Penn Medicine is engaged in is to discover diagnostic tests to identify people with the risk of cognitive decline, and test whether drugs can change this decline. Many people fear Alzheimer’s more than cancer. Yet Don is willing to talk to the world about what it’s like. He is inspiring.”

Don says, “Research at Penn has been groundbreaking and that’s why we’re here.”

“I am not ready to lose him,” says the love of his life. “Our life together — that is worth Penn Medicine.”

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