This was Ruth Hobbs on Thanksgiving Day 2002. For the first time, she hadn't cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her family or even had a hand in the cooking. For an hour, she sat alone in a corner, speaking to no one. When she finally did say something, it was to her daughter, DeEtta. Ruth, 73, wanted to know, for the fifth time that day, when they were leaving to see the doctor.
Ruth Hobbs (left) with her daughter DeEtta Blackwell was a participant in a national clinical trial of memantine, a drug to treat memory loss. Says Ruth today: "I'm delighted about how I'm doing. I can do anything I want to do really. I'm sure a happier person than before they started giving me this drug."
"Around this time, Mom would call me six to eight times a day at work. She wanted to go to the doctor every other day. The day after Thanksgiving dinner, she didn't even know it had happened. The quality of her life and well-being was horrible," DeEtta Blackwell says.
Soon after, Ruth was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. "I never felt so hopeless in my life when we got that diagnosis," DeEtta says. "I'm a nurse, and I knew very well what it meant."
Then DeEtta learned about a new UK study of the drug memantine, used in Germany for more than 20 years for general neurological disorders and approved in 2002 for use in Alzheimer's patients throughout Europe. "When Dr. [Greg] Cooper told me about this, I asked Momma if she'd like to join the study. 'Sure,' she said. 'If I do have Alzheimer's, what have I got to lose?'" Cooper is an assistant professor at UK's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and head of the neurology section of the center's memory disorders outreach clinic.
The first six months of the study were "blind," meaning that neither the patient nor the physician knew whether patients were getting memantine or a placebo. After six months, all patients enrolled in the study were given memantine.
"We still don't know what Mom was getting the first six months, but after she started taking memantine at the six-month point, she got noticeably better nearly overnight," DeEtta says. "We couldn't believe the difference."
Ruth went back to cooking family dinners and going to church with her son. Now she sews, cleans and arranges silk flowers. And she continues to live independently in a green-roofed cottage surrounded by flower beds she tends regularly.
"The memantine has dramatically changed her life," DeEtta says. "Her sense of well-being is back, she makes notes and keeps a calendar to help her remember upcoming events."
DeEtta was especially impressed when, four months ago, her mother read about a program on KET about Alzheimer's, made a note to see it, and then remembered to watch the program. "I'd forgotten it was on myself, but Mom didn't," DeEtta says. "I had mixed feelings about her seeing it, but it's something she wanted to do."
After watching the program, Ruth called her daughter. "God, DeEtta, I'm so glad they're giving me this pill. Without it, I'd be just like those people on TV."
"This was really touching, I thought," DeEtta says.
Ruth developed severe pneumonia during the 2003 Christmas holidays and was hospitalized for four days. DeEtta and other family members noticed that Ruth slipped mentally by the time she returned home, and they worried that it was the beginning of another decline.
"It took her four months, but she is almost back to where she was before getting pneumonia," DeEtta says. "I know that without the memantine she wouldn't have come back. She wouldn't be herself any more. She would have lost her independence."
DeEtta gives high marks to the Sanders-Brown team she and her mother have worked with during and after the clinical trial.
"It may sound strange to say this, but I feel like we have our own private care team for Alzheimer's." The team included Frederick Schmitt, UK professor of neurology, Cooper, Ashleigh Lucas, study coordinator at the Lexington Clinic, and Marie Smart, clinical associate, Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. "I can trust Momma in their hands, and now I don't have to stay glued to the Internet looking for every new book out there on Alzheimer's. It's because of them that Momma is in her own house right now."
This is Ruth Hobbs today. "I'm delighted about how I'm doing. I can do anything I want to do really. I'm sure a happier person than before they started giving me this drug. I was starting to get depressed.
"I live by myself and live a happy, normal life."
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For more information about Alzheimer's disease clinical trials at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, call 859/323-6729 or visit www.mc.uky.edu/coa.