(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on January 19, 2001)
For most Americans, surely, it was a sad bit of news. When we heard that former President Ronald Reagan had slipped and broken his right hip, most of us were reminded that even former presidents are not immune from the hardships of aging.
But for those of us who saw a close relative go through the long and agonizing death of an Alzheimer's patient, word of Reagan's fall – and the extensive news coverage it received during the last week – revived painful memories.
When my mother died two years ago – a slow Alzheimer's death that took almost four years – I chose to write “Cherishing my greatest role model,” about her wonderful life, instead of her agonizing death.
It was a tribute to the sacrifices she made for me and my brother, Beny. It paid homage to her willingness to leave all our worldly belongings back in Cuba, so that we could come to this country as refugees – to live in freedom.
But Ronald Reagan won't let me forget that my experience with Alzheimer's deserves a column. Every time his illness is in the news, it serves to inform people about one of the most dreaded diseases imaginable, as I am trying to do here.
“How are you taking the news about Reagan?” my brother asked when he called from Miami late one night this week. “I haven't been able to sleep.”
I tell my friends that Alzheimer’s is like Communism: You don't really understand its anguish, unless you have to live through it.
It takes its toll not only on its victims, but on the people around them. Imagine watching your loved ones’ minds gradually fading away. Seeing them become incapacitated, losing their ability to communicate, no longer remembering who you are and what you meant to them.
Knowing that they are approaching their death, there is so much you wish to say and learn from them. But they just lie there, sometimes for years, as if they were already dead. Can you imagine?
It should be unimaginable, but to the survivors of Alzheimer’s patients, it becomes a recurring nightmare every time Reagan is in the news nowadays.
For me, this latest round of news coverage was the clincher for writing a column. I sympathized with Nancy Reagan.
My mother Lilia, who died in Miami on Dec. 19, 1999, at the age of 79, had also suffered a broken hip a couple of years earlier – from which she never recovered.
She, too, had a plate and screws inserted into her hip. But you need a strong mind to overcome the physical training required for you to walk again. For my mother's mind, it was too late. She was bedridden for the last two years of her life.
Now, because Reagan is in the news, I read in the newspapers that an estimated 250,000 people – most of them elderly – break their hips every year in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. I also learned that only a fourth of them recover completely and that 20 percent die within a year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
For hip fracture patients with Alzheimer’s, the figures must be much more alarming. Other research has reportedly already found that the patients who were able to function independently before breaking their hips stand the best chance of recuperation.
Although Reagan, who turns 90 on Feb. 6, is apparently making a quick recovery, doctors reportedly advised Mrs. Reagan to “remain cautious in her optimism.”
And for me, those words ring so true that they send chills through my body. I remember wanting to believe that my mother was getting better, when Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that only gets worse.
Reagan's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Kevin Ehrhart, said the former president faces months of difficult physical therapy and a “long, uphill struggle” to recovery.
I say that's an understatement. I hope I'm wrong, but I would be surprised if we ever see Reagan walking again.
Ehrhart also said that since Alzheimer's makes it difficult for a patient to follow a therapy regimen, hip fracture patients with Alzheimer's are at a higher risk of dislocating the hip after surgery – which is exactly what happened to my mother. It took another operation to try to fix it – all in vain.
Ironically, both my mother and Reagan abhorred Communism and were defeated by Alzheimer's – the two things I find so hard to explain to those who have not lived through it.
My mother admired Reagan. But she never knew that they had so much in common.