Soon after I announced on Facebook this past summer that I’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, I heard from Steve DeWitt, who, in the late 1970s, was one year ahead of me at Sehome High School in Bellingham, Washington. Steve, it turned out, also was ahead of me in being diagnosed with this disease. Each of us played on our football team.
Prior to his diagnosis, Steve worked on high-end home projects, almost all of them in San Francisco. One of the homes was featured in a prestigious architecture magazine. But the severe recession that began in the fall of 2008 had a serious effect on his livelihood. “I was, for a year, unemployed…. It was just me and my wife, puttering around, doing odd jobs around the house.”
Soon the news got much worse. Steve linked up with an electrician he’d worked with previously. “The guy called me in, and hired me, and said I could start tomorrow,” Steve recalled. “It seemed like a great thing. But a few days later, the guy said, ‘You’re not cutting it.’”
Like many of us at a very early stage in the disease, Steve was not ready to acknowledge that the problem was his. He continued to bid for contracting jobs.
“I still had all the confidence in the world then. I just figured that I would just stop drinking wine, and eat better, and everything would come around fine.”
Steve added, “I was stubborn then. I kept on thinking that it was everyone else’s problem, not mine.
“I knew what I had done in the past. I had been on the cover of Architectural Digest. Those weren’t just dingbat ranchers I was building.”
During our conversation, Steve and I swapped stories of the fear we faced being sophomores on our high school football team and having to scrimmage against the varsity. Many of the seniors were grown men. Steve recalled getting hit helmet-to-helmet by Lance Neubauer, a huge specimen of a man who looked like a living version of Michaelangelo’s statue David, but with larger thighs.
“He was on offense, and I was on defense—I was skinny then—and if I could have, I would have just got out of his way,” Steve said. “We hit helmet to helmet on the top. It was–wow—the hardest hit I ever felt. I remember we had the green helmets at that time, and it was like I was wearing green sunglasses.”
Our coach was something of a free spirit, a far cry from the stereotype of the overbearing football taskmaster. His creative game tactics sometimes backfired, in one case leading to a loss to our crosstown rivals by a single point. But in terms of the treatment of concussions, our coach was like most, maybe all, high school football coaches of that era. After the blow from Neubauer, Steve remembers the coach telling him, “Just walk it off.”
Neither Steve nor I are aware of any instances of early-onset Alzheimer’s in our extended families. Both of us believe that our cognitive difficulties are at least partly a consequence of playing football. Steve has been examined by two neurologists, but neither is confident that the hit by Neubauer led decades later to Alzheimer’s. (One doctor was skeptical. The other ruled it out entirely.) Another factor in Steve’s health is a work-related concussion in 1988.
Because of a seizure some years back, believed to be connected to Alzheimer’s, Steve no longer drives. Living about 25 miles west of San Francisco, he feels isolated at times. But he is active in his local Alzheimer’s support group, and he is also enrolled in a clinical trial about ten miles from his home. At fifty-four, he is the youngest person in the study. The others are in their sixties and seventies.
But there is an encouraging sign: The trial medication appears to be helping.
“I do feel a lot better now than when I was diagnosed,” Steve said. “I was really confused all the time.”
I also asked Steve a question about surviving into the terminal stage of dementia, by which time our faculties may be severely compromised.
“Yeah, there is an 800-pound gorilla around the corner,” Steve said. “My deal is, I just don’t look too far down the road. I know it’s out there. This is kind of a cliché, but I just try to enjoy the day. I do organic gardening. I try to keep busy.”