What is your biggest fear? That’s one question, of many, that I believe gets to the core of not only humanity, but also a person. My poetry professor, Jorie Graham, told us that “brushes with mortality” are the foundations of good poetry, meaningful experiences, and lives richly recounted. This is a question I posed to my friend, who came to Lima, as we traveled together and explored Peru (i.e. Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes, and Lima). Immediately, upon my questioning, he echoed my thought: his greatest fear would be having Alzheimer’s disease.
While my greatest fear would be having this disease, I believe it goes on broader than just Alzheimer’s - in fact, it would be any neurodegenerative disease afflicting anything ranging from the physical to mental. We walked along the tumbling roads of Aguas Calientes where children were playing soccer in the fields, latino music blasted from stores seeming to seep through crevices, and I unpacked my answer that only began to solidify.
Weekly, I interact with my buddy who has Alzheimer’s disease. This summer, I have spent hours pouring over medical school applications to better understand the work I do and how I see it shaping my future. Too many hours of the day, I consider the implications of Alzheimer’s Buddies, reflect on why this work matters to me, and question how a disease is so powerful to rob the essence of who a person was. Sure, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s means being mindful that they are still present even when they are afflicted with the disease. And yes, their disease does not make them any less of a person who deserves the utmost dignity and respect. At the same time, my heart clenches when I think of losing the memories of things I hold dear, being unable to process new knowledge in the critical way I currently do, and of the uncertainty in relationships that I am privileged deem the cornerstones of my life.
Yet, with Alzheimer’s biggest questions arise about memories, aging, and mortality. For me, when I think of aging, I understand there will be challenges. However, the hope is that I can ponder my life, which I hope will be vividly colorful with multiple dimensions. Yet, how will I view the present and future if I cannot recount the past?
Perhaps it is because of my experiences seeing what Alzheimer’s does to people, whom I love and have grown to love, that I worry, fear, and panic when I consider the implications of being affected by this disease. Those same feelings turn into rage when Alzheimer’s patients are not cared for and are forgotten. Anger becomes sadness, tinged with shame and confusion, I admit, when I question how richly lived the lives of those with Alzheimer’s were before their disease. And when it comes to this, I remind myself to curb these thoughts with the knowledge that their disease does not define them. I remind myself that individuals are impacted by their disease yet they are more than just their disease.
Too many emotions coil and expand when I ponder the question the post is named after. While I am afraid of Alzheimer’s, mostly because of the unknowingness that comes with it, I am constantly humbled and awed of those with Alzheimer’s. There are many things that galvanize my work - perhaps it’s even fear, and really I cannot say. But, I do know that the memories of what I do, am doing, and the certainty of what I hope to do in this field ground my aspirations of going into medicine.
- Ellen Zhang