A couple of months ago, I headed to the doctor’s office for my yearly physical. This last visit, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor’s Physician Assistant in order to get the time and date I had someone available to watch my mother. Since I only go to the doctor once a year, I may not see the PA for a couple of years. She’s always very friendly and eager to catch up on my life changes. We all know that many variables impact our physical health, and these little chats can help the doctor flag possible future problem areas.
This became obvious fairly quickly when the PA queried, “Last time I saw you, you were getting ready to retire. Did you get to?"
“I’ll bet you’re enjoying all of your free time.”
“Well,” I shifted back into my chair to get a little more comfortable, “I’m taking care of my mother now. She’ll be eighty-two in January.”
The PA tilted her head and smiled, “That’s good, that you can have her live with you.”
“It’s more stressful and demanding than I thought because of her HD, but we’ve adjusted to her routine, and we’re managing now.”
“Huntington’s? Your mother has HD?” she grabbed the computer mouse and checked my file. “Is it in your file?”
“I think so. Mom used to come here, too. We moved her to a doctor closer to our home a couple of years ago to make it easier on her.”
“Have you been tested?” she asked as she clicked a tab.
She looked at me, blonde eyebrow raised in question.
“No. If I’m not tested, I have a fifty percent chance of being HD free. I can live with those odds. If I get tested, and I’m positive—well, that takes away my hope, you see?”
“If you do test, you could also know for certain that you don’t have it.”
“Or I’d know for certain that I do.” I shook my head. “For now, I have no symptoms. It may seem like denial, but I don’t have HD as long as I’m symptom free. I think it keeps me focused on the present, on dealing with my mother’s decline. That’s enough for me to handle right now.”
And with that our conversation shifted to my test results.
A few weeks later, I friended a young woman on Facebook because I saw one of her posts on a HD page. I’m slowly getting to meet people who either have HD or who care for family members with the disease. This ever widening network of optimistic experts guide my reading and keep me informed of what’s going on in the Huntington’s Disease community worldwide.
This new “friend” quickly emailed me with a brief background of her personal experience with HD, explaining that she (along with her mother and her sister) all have HD. At the end of her message, she asked, “Have you been tested?”
I found myself explaining again my hopeful logic on not having the test done. My siblings have also decided to forego testing unless we show symptoms. I don’t know if our ostrich approach to HD holds any logic, but dealing with a degenerative disease with little treatment options and no cure is overwhelming when handling my mother. I simply cannot add myself or my siblings into the mix right now.
My admiration for those at risk of developing HD who get tested grows with each person I meet who states, “I tested positive.” These courageous men and women (many ten or fifteen years younger that I) handle a life certainty with a level of determination and energy that’s daunting.
My view of HD skews to my mother’s experiences: extremely late onset, problems mainly with depression and anxiety, and relatively mild chorea. As she’s moved into the later stages of her illness, she’s struggling with rigidity, limited mobility, and problems with speaking and swallowing.
If Mom has to make a decision, she can’t unless we offer only two choices to her. So today, when we took her shopping for Christmas gifts, I’d say, “Do you want to give Paula clothes or something for her home.” Then it becomes a matter of always selecting two items until she settles on one. Mom adheres to a rigid schedule based upon the order of her daily routine, not time. I don’t think she can judge time at all anymore. However, for the majority of her day, her cognitive functioning stays sharp. We’ve learned how to structure conversations about the news, movies, or television episodes where she can comment in short phrases. Her problem doesn’t stem from not having something to communicate, but in having the ability to physically form the words.
I know from the research I’ve done that my mother’s progression through her illness is relatively stable and gradual. Some days, when I feel frightened about what comes next, I take strength in the fact that she’s not the typical HD patient. Perhaps that’s another reason I haven’t tested. I know that if I carry the gene, I’ll probably have an earlier onset of symptoms than my mother. Chances are higher that I’ll progress through the disease at a faster pace, and need more help at an earlier point in my life. Because of my current age, showing symptoms will happen sooner, rather than later.
Every day I record my thoughts, feelings, and reflections in a personal journal. If I don’t have HD, I hope that my experiences with my mother will help other caregivers. On the other hand, if I do have HD, my journals should reflect a log of someone who is pre-symptomatic and show the shift into the earliest evidence of the disease. By not testing, by not knowing for certain, I feel my journals may someday help another family.
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman