Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s disease

The Great Roger Bannister Has Died

A lifelong hero of mine, Roger Bannister, recently passed away at Oxford, England. This prompted me to mull the impact he has had on my life.

When I was barely eight years old, I recall his signature athletic accomplishment- breaking the four minute mile. At the time this feat was believed humanly impossible, simply beyond the level of human endurance.

Bannister breaking the four minute mile

I was stunned by the magnitude of his phenomenal and near mystical accomplishment. Humans can push themselves beyond expected limitations.

Bella: Hey Dad I can run a four minute mile too and even jump cattle guards

In 1954 Roger Bannister worked as  a medical student in London. On May 6, 1954 after putting in his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital, he caught an early train to Oxford, had lunch with friends, and met up with two trackmates: Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. Chataway and Brasher had been recruited as pacers to assist him in breaking the four minute mile. The day was damp and blustery, not conducive to be sure for going after a world record. Only about 1200 people showed up at Oxford’s Iffley track to watch Bannister’s effort, but an effort that soon would be heralded world-wide.

The gun went off and his valiant, gutsy attempt began. At one early point in the race, Roger Bannister tried to speed up Brasher’s pace but Brasher kept his head, maintaining the steady pace needed to achieve the ultimate goal. One lap, two laps, three laps passed.

Bannister was known for his great finishing kick so that when his pace man finally spun off at the beginning of the final lap, Bannister threw back his head, pumped his arms furiously, and ate up the remaining distance with his long strides. His finishing time turned out to be an astounding 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He had done it! Following his incredible exertion Bannister collapsed into the arms of his teammates.

As a youth I loved to run and in fact had a habit of running everywhere. Bannister’s achievements later inspired my own less impressive track efforts. But I found after an active early youth, a strange thing happening.

Following an unusual illness rather than being able to run long distances any longer, I found myself running out of breath much too early. I had speed but no endurance. Oftentimes as a young boy, I would register a fit of coughing so severe as to collapse me to my knees. There I would stay until able to stabilize my heavy breathing and be able to regain my feet.

I didn’t understand why my stamina, particularly my respiratory function, was less than others and me previously. (Parenthetically I never was able to explain my lack of endurance to my college track coach who determined at the beginning of every track season to have me run a quarter of a mile. This always ended with me becoming sick following the ill conceived attempt.)

Years later when in medical school, I was skin tested and found to have suffered a Battey bacillus infection, an infection similar to pulmonary tuberculosis but not so infectious. I can only assume this sneaky little mycobacterium led to my lack of lung endurance.

It became clear early on that if I was to be a runner, it would not be at distance. I suppose that’s why I became a sprinter and a broad jumper, knowing that anything beyond an eighth of a mile simply wasn’t possible for me.

To the surprise of the world, shortly after setting the world record at the mile, Roger Bannister retired from the sport of track. I found his stepping away from track quite shocking. In retrospect he did so, I presume, to focus on what he valued more greatly than track, that is becoming a clinical and research neurologist. He simply walked away from distance running after having accomplished what he had set out to do. His willingness to focus on what he saw as most important in his life made a lasting impression on me.

Buddy: Looks to me as if all that running isn’t as nice as a good nap

I attended university and began my own premedical training. Although I had been recruited out of high school to run track in college, I had made the decision to focus my efforts entirely on my dream of becoming a doctor. A visit from the track coach at Texas Tech and his substantial urging along with the offer of a much needed athletic scholarship soon saw me back wearing track shoes. For the next two years I was fortunate to letter in track and field and help the Texas Tech team win some meets including second in the southwest conference meet. It was then I had to face a serious decision of my own.

During my junior year my premedical studies would require five afternoon science laboratories that didn’t even let out till past 5:00 pm. If I were to practice track, it would be on my own in the evenings working out when I needed to be studying for the following day’s classes. I faced a decision as to whether to change my curriculum or else give up track.

The decision was an easy one for me to make although not without causing a sense of loss for my lost sport and my teammates. In the same way that Roger Bannister had exemplified, I gave up track and plowed my efforts full on into becoming a physician, and yes, like Bannister a neurologist.

It was years later during several training stints at the National Hospital (Queen Square) in London that I came across Roger Bannister again and this time in person. He would occasionally provide a lecture in the musty old lecture halls of Queen Square on a neurological topic- various aspects of Multiple Sclerosis, as I recall. He came across as tall, austere, and frankly rather humorless individual. I later learned he was actually painfully shy. Little did he know that one of the nameless faces in that auditorium had admired him for so long and from so far away.

The National Hospital (Queen Square), London

My own career paralleled Bannister’s but in a less storied fashion. I too became a clinical and research neurologist. Like Bannister I was seduced by the mysteries of the brain and what all it was capable of performing. My special interests rather than relating to Multiple Sclerosis centered on Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

The direct approach to understanding the mysteries of the brain

Perhaps the commonalities we shared with both track and neurology explain my sense of personal loss over Roger Bannister’s death. He provided for me inspiration in athletics and blazed a pathway into Neurology.

In your life Roger Bannister, you raced to the adulation of an entire world. You then performed the intellectual work of research into the mysteries of brain illnesses. You have now run your race and you ran it ever so well. It was at times a sprint and at others a distance run but always with good humor and respect for others. Thank you Sir Roger. God speed!

Roger Bannister

When My Writing Was Just Too Late

I enjoy writing and can become engrossed when doing so. I’ve  been known to forget appointments and, on occasion, have absentmindedly left my wife waiting for me at restaurants while I merrily click away at my computer.

What about me? I stood for hours beside an empty feed trough

What about me? I stood for hours beside an empty feed trough waiting to be fed

Buddy at a somewhat older age in the bed of the pickup

Don’t forget, I laid for what felt like forever beside your desk when we could have been taking a walk or herding cattle or doing something fun

In some ways though my writing has been just too late.  What I mean is that timing the appearance of your work product is important. If only this was always possible.

For example I enjoyed a wonderful relationship with my maternal grandmother, Grandma Corp. She was smart, independent, feisty, and not afraid to state her  opinions. She cared for me and I for her. One opinion she shared was that you could tell if someone was “right in the head” by looking into his/her eyes. That is, their eyes provided subtle information about the quality of their thinking processes. I never forgot her observation but it took many years to fully understand it.

Much later when working on my PhD I needed a dissertation topic. My subject matter, oddly enough, became eye movements and eye fixations in various forms of dementia. I wrote of how the eye is the window to the mind and how eye movements (scan paths among other tests) and duration of eye fixations could provide information about how people process visual information and how they think about what they are viewing. I hypothesized varying forms of dementia would process visual information differently and that their eye movement measures might provide diagnostic insight as well as heuristic value.

The direct approach to understanding The Thinker

The direct approach to understanding thinking, if it were only that simple

Yes, the fabric of my thesis reflected the very thoughts grandmother Corp had stitched into my memory at a young age. But by the time I wrote the research grants, received the grant funds, carried out the experiments, wrote the thesis, and successfully defended it, my dear grandmother had become lost in the mental swamps of neuritic plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Sorry about the jargon, she’d developed Alzheimer’s disease.

I had dedicated my dissertation to my grandmother. Sadly by the time I was able to read to her my endearment that began my dissertation, Grandmother had advanced  too far into her disease to comprehend it. She responded to me though with a wonderful and endearing smile.

Six months ago my first popular book came out, Carrying The Black Bag. At several points in my memoir, I praise my wise mother who offered sound advice and encouragement. I wrote in my book of when she braved a Minnesota snowstorm (worst blizzard in twenty years) to drive my wife, Trudy, who was in labor to the hospital where I was the intern on call for Obstetrics. Mother went where the local ambulances feared to go. She never was one to admit it couldn’t be done. And I proudly pointed out in my book that she was from sunny Texas and unaccustomed to the northern climes. Carrying the Black Bag book

This story of my son Andy’s birth along with others in my book where she offered sage advice captured, I hope, how valuable she had been in my life.

Several weeks ago I visited my now 95-year old mother in the Alzheimer Special Care Unit at Arabella in Athens, Texas. I attempted to update her on the progress of my recently released book and to thank her for all that she had contributed. I again was too late.

Again, Mom was too deep into her dementia to track the meaning of my words. But I know she felt the love I had for her and smiled when I stroked her hand and head. Her endearing smile affirmed my presence and seemed to light up the room.

In some ways, two of my most significant writing projects (my PhD thesis and my memoir) proved emotional busts due to Grandma and Mom’s memory and cognitive losses. My testimonials brimmed with profound appreciation for them, but both came just too late for them to recognize my appreciation for their special roles in my life.4335496

But I’ve learned from these unfortunate events. Recognition and affirmation can’t always be earned but can be enjoyed. Perhaps it’s like grace in the Christian religion. It is beyond our efforts to earn grace just like I was unable to gain the hoped for response from Grandmother and Mom. Their love for me and their smiles, like grace, came automatically. For their endearing smiles I shall be forever grateful. I shall also forever hate the scourge that is Alzheimer’s disease.