What Happens When You Forget?
When I left for medical school in August 2018 my grandma knew me.
We reminisced on the fondest memories I have of my childhood, teens, and young adulthood; the countless days spent at her house.
My grandma has always been my favorite person in the world. If I was having a bad day she was the first phone call to make it better. If I was having a good day she was the first phone call to share my happiness.
When I left in August, I didn’t know it would be the last time she would know me.
I started noticing changes in our phone calls — the confusion in her voice, masked by attempts to act normal; to act like nothing was wrong. We knew my grandma was having memory issues for the last year, but it was always easier to brush it off as a typical sign of aging. It wasn't until a few months into school that she was able to get into a neurologist to be evaluated.
Diagnosis: Stage 3 Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s has 7 stages, 3 being mild decline.
"That's okay" I remember thinking. "Its only mild, we still have time."
I honestly had no idea how to even process the news. I think I was in denial. She was in denial. Everyone seemed to be in denial.
I don't think anyone knows what goes through the mind of someone with Alzheimer’s, especially when it is still in the mild stages. I imagine it being like the feeling you get when you wake up after a deep sleep and, for a split second, forget where you are; that fluttering moment of sheer panic. I imagine that's what it must feel like when she can't remember something she knows that she should — when she sees a face and can't for the life of her come up with a name. Does she panic? Is she scared?
I hope she isn't scared.
Fast forward to this summer. I went with my mom to see my grandma — not at her home, that's gone now. The horses, the stream, her life as she knew it: that's gone now. I walked up to the door, and saw the words "Memory Care Unit,” and I just remember thinking: How?
How did we get here? It hadn't even been a year. I thought we had time. I thought it was only mild.
Progression can happen slowly over time, but for her it progressed quickly: Stage 6, severe decline.
What happened to mild?
I walked inside and I saw her. Her face hadn't changed, it still held the wrinkles shaped by a life filled with smiles, laughs, and tears. She looked like the grandma I knew, but she didn’t "know" me. I do believe she recognized my face as familiar because she hugged me back. She held my hand, but I was squeezing hers. We made our way to her room in the unit. She had been packing her things.
She wanted to leave.
That visit is hard to put into words. Our conversations were like going back in time. Her brain allowed her to live in a time before her father and mother passed away, before her brother and good friends passed away. She talked of things she used to do as if she had done them that day. We looked at old photos. We talked about life. I told her who I was. I explained that I am in medical school. She was so proud. She had no idea what her diagnosis was. She believed the Memory Care Unit was where she worked and, boy, did she want to quit and "get the heck out of here."
She didn’t know.
When it was time to go she begged us to take her with us. I wanted to. Tears began welling in her eyes. This goodbye was so hard. Eventually staff had to distract her, and I had to walk out of there. Without her.
I was able to keep it together until I got outside of the door, but then it all hit me like a 14-ton truck. My heart hurt. It was such a helpless feeling. Again, it is hard to put into words.
I hate Alzheimer’s. I hate not being able to help her. There is no more denial. It is real and it is happening. Fortunately, I was able to go see her a few more times before coming back to school. Each visit is one I will always hold close to my heart.
Time waits for no one. Life back home does not press pause while I am away at school. That is a hard realization. I start this new school year with more fire — more passion — to be a part of a time where we find the answers; to give hope to the countless families out there dealing with the same tragedy.
They say having a loved one with Alzheimer’s is like getting a thousand tiny paper cuts.
You grieve the loss of aspects of a person throughout the progression of the disease.
You grieve for what used to be, knowing there isn't a cure; knowing that nothing will bring them back.
The beauty of Alzheimer’s, though, is it acts like a brief window into your loved ones past. As their mind forgets, it goes through old memories as if they are current, and for a while you get to enjoy the stories and the events that made your loved one who they are. Hold on to the memories, if not for yourself, for them. We become the keeper of their stories.
Listen. Be present. Love them, endlessly.
I share my story to show others they are not alone. Our personal lives still exist as medical students. We need to remember to take the time to reach out to our loved ones, not just for them, but also for the sake of our own mental health and well-being. We are medical students, but we are still human. Life happens, but the beauty of PNWU is we have a community that is willing to come together and help get us through.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences