It may be something small, but it’s enough to scare you: you misplace your car keys, or you can’t remember the name of the movie you saw last week. Or your mind suddenly goes blank as you try to retrieve a word that hovers maddeningly out of reach. And you think, that’s it, I’m getting Alzheimer’s disease. While most people of a certain age have probably experienced that stab of anxiety, I’m particularly fearful. My father died with Alzheimer’s.
I say he died with it, not of it, because one can live with Alzheimer’s for years until some other illness—a heart attack, a stroke—mercifully ends the agony. For two decades, Alzheimer’s ate away at the man who was once my father, robbing him of speech, leaving him mute through a long, grim twilight.
As a writer, I’m particularly horrified by the prospect of words, the tools of my trade, slipping away from me. Like many of my friends, I’m trying to avoid the disease by staying physically fit and mentally active, but Alzheimer’s remains the only cause of death in the U.S.’s top 10 that can be neither prevented nor cured. It costs the U.S. $226 billion to care for our current five million Alzheimer’s patients, and by 2050, it’s projected that Alzheimer’s will cost our nation a trillion dollars. It destroys many more American lives than terrorism in this country ever has. Isn’t it time we declared war on this devastating enemy?
This war won’t be fought on battlefields but in research facilities, and our soldiers will be scientists. As a medical doctor, I’ve witnessed dramatic changes in medicine over the decades, and I’m certain that a cure for Alzheimer’s is within reach. In 2013, to help fund that research, I began my War on Alzheimer’s fund drive. I chose to work with the nonprofit Scripps Research Institute, an internationally known leader in basic biomedical research, because I knew the money would go straight to their Alzheimer’s research program.
I had noticed the importance of small donations to political campaigns, and I thought that same strategy might work for my campaign. Every $5 given to my cause (managed through GoFundMe) automatically placed the donor in a random drawing for various prizes, including autographed copies of my books; Rizzoli & Isles T-shirts, hats, and DVDs; and two grand prizes: the chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli & Isles novel. The more money you donated, the more chances you had at a prize. I pledged to match donations up to $25,000.
We raised over $50,000 in that first drive two years ago. My campaign wasn’t just about raising money; it was also about sharing personal stories of loved ones we’d lost to Alzheimer’s. On my campaign’s tribute page, donors wrote about their once-vibrant mothers and fathers who had faded into oblivion, just as my own father had. They posted photos and shared their fears that they too would one day succumb. They found comfort in knowing that they were not alone.
When I contacted the two grand-prize winners to ask which names they wanted as characters in my novel, one winner said, “Please use the name of my late mother. She died of Alzheimer’s, and I want to see her live again.”
This, I felt, was a sacred assignment. The character had to be worthy of his mother’s name, someone who wouldn’t simply walk on the page and walk off again. Someone who would have an adventure of her own and would live to tell the tale. And so Millie Jacobson, named after a woman who died of Alzheimer’s, made her entrance on the very first page of Die Again. Stranded in the African bush, Millie falls in love, fights for her life, and nearly loses her sanity. She emerges triumphant, a scrappy survivor who helps Jane Rizzoli catch a killer. Alzheimer’s disease may have killed her namesake, but this Millie Jacobson would live on.
Millie’s fictional adventure may be over, but my War on Alzheimer’s will continue until there’s a cure. I’ve already launched a second fund-raiser on GoFundMe, and once again, two winning donors will have a chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli and Isles novel. I hope other authors will join the fight for more Alzheimer’s research dollars by spreading the word, or by launching their own fund-raisers. There are a number of excellent biomedical research institutes around the country, and they can all use our support. Words are the tools of our trade. Let’s use them now to fund a cure, so those words won’t slip away from us forever.
Tess Gerritsen is a physician and bestselling author of several medical thrillers and the Rizzoli & Isles crime thrillers. She lives in Maine, where she is currently at work on her next suspense novel.