Last May, Paul Gates made a stunning announcement.
"I have visited with physicians and neurologists and I've been diagnosed with Alzheimer's," he told the audience during a newscast.
Paul shared the difficult news with viewers who have watched him for years.
"It was devastating," said his wife, Michele.
In their first interview since Paul's retirement, Michele said she suspected for a long time that Paul might have a medical problem. He wasn't himself on television. Like many people in Paul's shoes, it took more than a year to get an accurate diagnosis. As hard as it was, she said hearing her doctor say the words out loud was the call to action she and Paul needed.
Michele - "Until he said that words, 'Paul, you have Alzheimers.' As soon as those words were spoken, the next thing we said was, 'How aggressive can we get?'" Michele said.
"Hey, honey. Where'd you come from," Paul said while walking around the lake at Pennington.
Today, Paul and Michele are battling his Alzheimer's with the same sense of humor and aggressiveness that's been his trademark throughout his career. He has even enrolled in a study at Pennington's Institute of Dementia Research and Prevention.
"I figured it probably could help, maybe help discover things find out new things learn things and I figured if they could do that, they could do it for everyone," Paul explained.
Paul is right. While the study mainly tracks the progression of his Alzheimer's symptoms, it could also give scientists clues that could lead to earlier diagnosis, more effective treatments and even ways to stop the disease.
Dr. Jeffrey Keller heads up Alzheimer's research at Pennington.
"We're called the Institute of Dementia Research and Prevention for a reason," Keller said.
The fact is the number of Alzheimer's cases is going up faster in Louisiana than the national average. On top of that, symptoms start earlier here. Researchers have theories for why, but more than anything, it adds urgency to their mission.
"It's taking the disease out to where cancer was 50 years ago. We want to identify those earliest changes that happen, so that current therapies may have a better chance of working, but two, to design new therapies in the earliest stages of the disease," Keller explained.
Michelle gets it. She's a breast cancer survivor.
"There was a time when someone was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer her chances weren't good," she said.
In many ways, Paul represents the future of Alzheimer's. Diagnosed early, medicine has kept his disease from getting any worse than mild to moderate for almost two years. That's a remarkable achievement by itself. Still, life with Alzheimer's hasn't been a cakewalk for Paul or Michele.
Michele said early on, questions from well-meaning people caught her off guard.
"Does he get lost? Does he recognize you? And, the answer to all those questions is and he absolutely recognizes everyone," Michele said.
Then, there's the occasional frustration of trying to transform thoughts into words. It happens to Alzheimer's patients even in the early stages. For someone like Paul, who had a successful career as a skilled communicator, it's been especially tough.
"I get frustrated with myself because I was getting to some point I was trying to make and then, I kind of lost it, you know," he explained.
Paul and Michele agreed to showing that brief, but tense moment in our interview because they believe it captures the darker side of Alzheimer's, even in patients doing as well as Paul.
Anyone who talks to Paul will quickly learn even with Alzheimer's he's still the same likable, good natured guy they loved to watch on Channel 9.
Now that he's retired and has time, Paul takes every opportunity to get to know the people who felt so close to him for so long.
"I spend a lot of time just talking to people. I've met some really nice people," Paul added.
Paul stays active, not just by being part of research at Pennington. He's using his years as one of Baton Rouge's best known TV personalities to help raise awareness of Alzheimer's.
Paul has also volunteered to be part of the Faces of Alzheimer's project. Alzheimer's services organized the event. Among other things, it highlights the support offered to Alzheimer's patients and their families in the area.
"I want people to know that there are a lot of things that can be done and there are ways people can be helped," he stated.
Paul is not one to sit around and worry, but he is human. It's what led me to ask him, "What is it," about Alzheimer's that scares Paul Gates the most.
"I guess my biggest fear might be what might be coming. And, but with that, I'm going to be fighting," he answered.
Whether it's volunteering to be part of cutting edge research or simply sharing his own story, Paul's fight could help re-write the book on how Alzheimer's Disease is not only treated, but one day, maybe even prevented.
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