Why Pat Summitt’s Alzheimer’s Feels So Personal

Suddenly dementia seems all too real — and close

When Pat Summitt announced last week that she was stepping aside as the head coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team because of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, it was in a way more jolting than when she made her diagnosis public last August.
The fiery, focused coach who led the Lady Vols to eight national championships and a college basketball-record 1,098 victories made the announcement in a news conference with the same grace and class with which she has done virtually everything throughout her 59 years.
For Summitt , known for her her steely determination and quick mind, her retirement as head coach puts a period at the end of one sentence, even though she has many more paragraphs to write in her life story as head coach emeritus and advocate for Alzheimer’s education and research.
To many of us at midlife, “early onset Alzheimer’s” has been little more than a lame joke to laugh off misplacing the car keys. But to see it affect someone near our own age makes it all too real — and close. Even if Alzheimer’s disease hasn’t touched our own families, we’ve certainly been aware of how it has affected others, like grandparents or parents of friends, President Ronald Reagan or even 76-year-old Glen Campbell. But this is different.
Sports talk show host Paul Finebaum, of the Paul Finebaum Radio Network, has covered Summitt since he was sports editor of the student newspaper at Tennessee in the 1970s. He said Summitt’s news conference stopped him in his tracks.
“I was walking out of my house after lunch with one eye on ESPN when the press conference started,” he said. “Suddenly, I couldn’t move. I was literally frozen in time watching Pat fight back tears saying farewell. I remembered the first time I had met her as a sophomore in college, literally a lifetime ago.
“I saw her as someone in her early 20s, at the beginning of the most successful coaching career this side of John Wooden, and tears welled in my eyes, because what I was seeing on my small television set felt like a corkscrew through my heart.”
Like many people in their 50s, Finebaum felt the news on an extremely personal level.
“I didn’t need Pat saying farewell to remind me I was no longer a teenager, but it was perhaps the most sobering shot of reality I’ve ever received,” Finebaum said. “How could someone just a few years older than me, someone I have known my entire adult life, have to walk away from this career because of that?
“Then, suddenly, I woke up and quit feeling sorry for myself because time had marched on. I am still able to work every day with no health issues. My life is good. I got in my car and finished listening to the press conference, with tears running down my cheek and my heart breaking.’’
Summitt, too, will keep working and moving forward into a life filled with unknowns. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post described Summitt’s symptoms this way: “a disturbing sense of disorientation when she wakes in strange, dark hotel rooms on the road. Difficulty drawing, which means she can’t diagram plays anymore. A weird mental slipperiness when it comes to retaining numbers, especially room numbers in hallways that all look the same.”
As Summitt told Jenkins, “I’m going to play all this by ear, I’m not going to predetermine what I’m going to say and do.”

That’s a remarkable comment coming from someone who was known for plotting every play. But her new approach may be the one we all want to embrace when dealing with the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Carla Baranauckas
By Carla Baranauckas
Carla Baranauckas was Next Avenue's assistant managing editor. Follow Carla on Twitter @cabara.

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