It’s pushing 10 a.m., and Jacquelynn is finally almost fully alert. It can take a while for her to get going, but once she’s up to speed, it is truly remarkable what happens. Her physical presence is stronger; her sense of space, her posture, her confidence. She walks rather than shuffling, she stands at least 2″ taller. She expresses herself more clearly, hunting for words less and speaking more confidently.
A nightly habit of ours is watching Jeopardy together. Lately, she’s begun answering the questions! Not parroting what she’s heard and not stammering around them, but actually answering them correctly even when the contestants don’t. Words haven’t come quickly to her for a long time, now, but when she knows the answer, the words jump out, competing with me again, the way we always did.
Tasks that baffled her only weeks ago now come easily, instinctually; I left the house on a short errand and she thought of one question before I was even to the end of our street, and the smartphone that had so confounded her was suddenly a familiar device, her ringtone startling me in the car, as she hadn’t successfully called me (or even answered a call) in almost a year. Only days ago, she reached up and casually pulled the chain to turn on a lamp in the family room as the sun’s influence dimmed. Insignificant? Perhaps not when you know that only one day earlier she had struggled with that same lamp, as she had for many months until finally giving up and asking me to turn it on for her. She didn’t even realize she had done anything unusual, either; after all, she had just turned on a lamp like people do every hour of every day. Just as dialing the phone hadn’t seemed important; just as gliding into the front seat of the car where she previously had such difficulty has seemed so normal; just as her increased appetite and more energetic stride and the bounce in her step are so easily accepted as “everyday”. Every growth and improvement in her carriage and cognition feels perfectly commonplace to her, as the improved access to that portion of her brain translates to the feeling of normalcy to each “simple” task.
Every day, I see more of the Jacquelynn I fell in love with nearly twenty years ago. The wit, the passion, even the slightly naughty gleam in her eyes. The smile. she’s always had such a ready smile, but these last many months it has been an almost empty expression; shades of the blank look so prevalent in dementia wards. But not now! Her wide smile once more has the layers of personality and mischief and subtext it had long lacked.
When one reads and researches this disease as much as I have, certain patterns in the typical decline become clear. It is common, for instance, as a patient’s cognition worsens, for their world to shrink. It often begins because they’re embarrassed with their difficulty expressing themselves (this was Jacquelynn’s reason). Tragically, it also happens as people quietly distance themselves for terror of watching their loved one decline (and inevitably also the fear of being asked to help). Eventually, their universe becomes a few rooms and one or two people. Even when they lament their lost friends and family, they resist including them. This had clearly happened here over the last nearly two years. After my recent trip to the hospital and the trauma of staying with/depending on our neighbor for those two and a half days, she’s been reluctant to include Joyce or even to leave the house unless we were headed to WalMart, as there is one very dear man there whom she loves visiting with. Even then, she tired so easily that the trips left her exhausted and vaguely moody.
Not now. She aches to expand her sphere once more. Her energy level has me keeping up with her at the grocery rather than the typical reverse, and (because I’ve kept all the relevant phone numbers and maintained some of the contacts), she has one of her dear friends and former coworker coming to visit this weekend! She is SO excited to broaden her world once more, to reestablish those connections, that she’s already starting to plan a get-together with several friends from that same job.
Miracles happen every day. Conception and successful childbirth happen many thousands of times each and every day, and I challenge you to describe a more miraculous event. But we’ve assigned such huge connotations and religious implications to the term “miracle” that we feel compelled to dismiss or explain away occurrences with no logical explanations within our experiences. But spontaneous cures and recoveries have been documented throughout history. Cancerous tumors have disappeared; patients with shattered spinal cords get out of their supposedly permanent wheelchairs and walk away; there are countless examples available within a few keystrokes online, with so many simply dismissed as “unexplained”.
A very basic (and highly oversimplified) overview of the function of Alzheimer’s disease concerns the formation of protein plaques (amyloid) in the brain. These plaques block the flow of electricity and nutrients in the brain, choking off individual neurons and eventually entire portions of the brain. While these plaques remain, growth and regeneration of neurons is impossible. As the plaques spread, a patient’s access to memories and even aspects of their personality is lost. This loss is (according to conventional/Western medicine) permanent and irreversible.
Last week, we had a bad day. I would even say a very bad day. A very bad and extraordinarily incredible day. How so? Let us start at the beginning:
It was a very good night, Tuesday overnight; good meditation overflowing with gratitude, a few laughs at the television, and Jacquelynn was very quickly asleep. She slept quite well throughout the night, too, only getting up twice in the night to go to the restroom then getting almost instantly back to sleep. The early morning was a bit anomalous, with her seeming a bit disconnected and frightened, but she never lost control or awareness, and after riding her exercise bike for half an hour, she was eager to get downstairs and start the day. She was especially buoyed by the return of her favorite morning TV show in reruns of Leverage. She truly enjoys it, and it had been off for two weeks for the holidays.
It was at lunchtime that things began to go a little south. After we had done her shoulder exercises and come back downstairs, I asked her if she was ready for her noontime pills. When she expressed some concern with having just exercised, I told her we could wait, but not too long (I try to keep them spaced out several hours apart), and that is when she got angry with me. In moments she was denying my identity as her husband and accusing me of stealing my ring from him, but oddly she never felt frightened enough to cry for help as she so often has, and she calmed quickly when we called Joyce over. In her role as friend and kind of a touchstone from outside the house, Joyce always seems to help calm her. I carried her bike downstairs while they spoke and she rode off her nervous energy while talking to Joyce and me. All seemed well.
But she never shook the fear that episode instilled in her. She wept lightly several times. I tried to comfort her and calm her, reminding her that if we believe (which we do!) that life happens FOR us rather than TO us, then this, too, had to have happened for us. So we need only to figure out what it is trying to tell us. This seemed to help a bit, but only for a short while. After dinner, she seemed to get worse, withdrawing further into herself until finally, around 6, she got panicky again, and asked me once more to call Joyce. Just hearing her on the phone calmed Jacquelynn a little, and she agreed to get back onto her bike (it really does help her to focus and burn off her nervous energy).
Now is when it turns into an AMAZING day. Pay attention.
While pedaling away, Jacquelynn began working through explaining to Joyce and myself what she believed was causing her to feel so unbalanced. After surprisingly minimal difficulty with her words, she explained that she believed her medications were to blame. This struck an instant chord with me, reminding me that I had not refilled her Estradiol prescription. Her hormones are badly out of balance again, and THIS is what these episodes were trying to tell us.
Please understand that this conclusion requires many cognitive and deductive faculties that Jacquelynn simply did not have only a few days earlier. This means that, as I have believed/suspected for over a week now, that neurons are regrowing and regenerating. This in turns means, all but indisputably, that the Alzheimer’s plaques have been truly eradicated from her brain; with those amyloid proteins strangling and isolating neurons, such growth is simply impossible.
It took a day to get the prescription refilled, and there was some anxiety in the interim, but within hours of taking the medication (it’s an every-three-day patch), she was visibly and perceptibly calmer and more stable and has remained so since.
With the amyloid plaques still extant, Jacquelynn’s remarkable recoveries of the past few weeks simply would not be possible. Hence my conclusion that the causative agents in her brain are gone and what we’re experiencing is her brain healing; neurons regenerating and neural pathways clearing. To use an analogy I often refer to when discussing this with her, the lights are coming on, and some one’s home!
We are referring to this as our Christmas miracle. Our doctor, whom we consulted today, ascribes it to many things; diet, meditation, exercise, and, undeniably, the limitless flow of positive energy. I’ve stated before how much we like her; she gets it. She even tells us that our visits calm her and bring her the positive energy she sometimes needs.
I’m not what one would call a religious person, and neither is my wife. To some of my family’s consternation, I no longer call myself “Christian”. SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) is how it’s stated online now. So please understand that when I use the term “miracle”, I’m not talking about conferring sainthood to a uniquely blessed individual or presuming that we are in any way more special or deserving than any other human. I’m talking about the most commonplace healing in the world. It has been said for millennia by many of the greatest spiritualists and spiritual teachers in history that the only true healing comes from within. Our experiences wouldn’t be remotely controversial in 18th Century China, but in 21st Century Ohio, our use of the word “miracle” is interpreted as either a hyper-religious or supernatural claim. It is no such thing.
What it is is real.