December 3, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Why do we run for charity? Christina Clark explains how her grandmother's illness prompted her to put on her trainers...

nana and grandad

In loving memory of Iris and Eric Stafford

It was about mile 7 as I recollect. Only 5 more to go. My legs were giving way, my vision was becoming blurred and I was mentally hitting the wall. I was determined to get to the finish line. Why am I doing this? I thought to myself. Halfway through my full-time masters and after a very long week at the hospital I suddenly started to feel maybe I’d taken on a bit more than I could chew. I turned up the volume on my earphones and kept running.

My Nana, Iris suffered for years with a terrible and slow degenerative brain disease called Alzheimer’s. She was a graceful lady who lived what could only be described as a modest life, had survived a war, had been a mother, a wife, a sister and a loving Nana. She had a wonderful smile and was ALWAYS laughing. She exuded dignity that would provoke jealously in the most sophisticated of ladies. She used to always laugh hysterically at a face I pulled, so I made sure to do it every time I saw her. She would ask me a serious question: “how are you?” and I would smile and raise my eyebrows up and down until she burst into laughter. The simplest of things! I used to think to myself.

It was unfortunate that I didn’t live nearer to Nana growing up so I would only get to see her once every couple of months. Unfortunately, this meant the signs of Alzheimer’s became more obvious each time. Nana eventually ended up in a residential home, where we knew her safety was ensured. One Sunday afternoon, I went to visit her after not having seen her for a while. She was drinking tea with my Granddad and from a distance they appeared to be sharing a joke. She can’t be that unwell I thought, she is going to be so excited to see me, she always is. I bet she’ll give me one of those really tight cuddles and tell me how much I’ve ‘grown’

But she didn’t get up. With a straight face she asked “how do you do?” I pulled the face that had always made her laugh – but she didn’t laugh, she looked right through me as if to say ‘who are you and why are you pulling ridiculous faces at me?’ My heart felt like it had burst inside my chest, I was so embarrassed and tears filled my eyes. I had to walk out the room.

I never really understood how Nana started to forget that her glasses don’t belong in the fridge or that my name was not Kathleen. It remains unclear as to what is going on in the brain at the time the symptoms of Alzheimer’s present themselves. Currently, an analysis through a post-mortem is the only way scientists are able to establish the exact cause of dementia. Damage to the hippocampus and temporal and parietal lobes are known to cause Alzheimer’s disease as well as the death of brain cells through lack of protein manufacturing or altering. Unlike cells elsewhere in the body, brain cells cannot divide or replicate, hence the progressive nature of the disease. Current diagnosis is established after completion of a questionnaire consisting of thirty verbal questions that assess for any signs of cognitive impairment, plus a physical examination, and through the use of MRI. These are not, however, available to everyone due to their expense.

So why was I putting myself through the shin splints, the blistered toes and the painful walk up the stairs the next day. I was keen to know what my fundraising money for the Alzheimer’s Society would be going towards. The money would contribute towards developing technology that will enable earlier and a more specific diagnosis of the disease. Currently, advanced computer programmes are used to detect early signs through a routine brain scan. They work by comparing brain scans against 1200 others that show varying degrees of Alzheimer’s disease. Not only does this help to detect Alzheimer’s, but it helps to develop a clear picture of the images which may help to develop new and successful dementia drugs in the future. This is still no ‘cure’ but it helps to prolong the degenerative process, in turn helping people to plan their care before their condition worsens.

At Nursing college, elderly care was never seen as a glamorous area. Unlike paediatrics for example, it was hard to see a difference in patients immediately and ‘recovery’ and ‘hope’ were words rarely uttered. At the age of 16 I volunteered at an elderly home and it was here I met some truly wonderful people, in particular, one who had travelled the world with her father during the war. She had the most fascinating tales and inspirational stories and had lived a life five times as long as mine. How could I for one second feel that she was any less important than any other patient, old or young? I didn’t.

My Grandfather supported Nana throughout her life and showed loyalty beyond the highest of ranks. He battled with his own physical health problems but was at her side round-the-clock. This disease not only affects the person diagnosed with it but all of their loved ones too. Slowly, you start to lose the people you love in an undignified and deeply saddening way. Please let’s help to fight this terrible disease.

IMAGES: Christina Clark and