For two years, Sandy Bem, a Cornell psychology professor, had been experiencing what she called “cognitive oddities”: forgetting the names of things or confusing words that sounded similar. She once complained about a “blizzard” on her foot, when she meant a blister; she brought home a bag of plums and, standing in her kitchen, pulled one out and said to a friend: “Is this a plum? I can’t quite seem to fully know.”
She found the answer in a preliminary diagnosis from University of Rochester Medical Center neuropsychologist Mark Mapstone: amnestic mild cognitive impairment. At first Sandy was relieved — he had said mild, hadn’t he? — but then she caught the look on his face. This is not a good thing, Mapstone told her gently; most cases of amnestic M.C.I. progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease within 10 years.
When Sandy went back to the waiting room to meet Daryl, she was weeping uncontrollably. Between sobs, she explained the diagnosis and the inevitable decline on the horizon. She felt terror at the prospect of becoming a hollowed-out person with no memory, mind or sense of identity, as well as fury that she was powerless to do anything but endure it. With Alzheimer’s disease, she would write, it is “extraordinarily difficult for one’s body to die in tandem with the death of one’s self.” That day at Mapstone’s office, she vowed that she would figure out a way to take her own life before the disease took it from her.
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