Tom was sitting in the chair, his arms stretched out in front of him. He was smiling; he always smiled, but it never reached his eyes. He had his shirt buttoned all the way, just how he liked it—the fleece ironed to a crisp, fresh look. His peppered hair grew over his ears. He needed to go to the barber.
“Okay, Tom, how are you feeling today?” The doctor sat on the other end of the table. His white jacket was a stark contrast to Tom’s shirt, a bright amber-plaid.
“Great,” Tom said. His answer was short, clipped as it often was.
“How did you get here today?” The doctor was playing with the pen on the table, his notepad at the ready.
“Uhh,” Tom let out a laugh as he turned and looked around the room. There was a moment of panic until his eyes met with the woman standing behind him. “This little lady right here.” He put his arm out to touch her hand.
“And what’s her name?”
Tom looked at the doctor again, but this time his face dropped. The thick waves of hair, the dimple in her cheeks, the way she seemed to sway to the side—none of it was familiar. His eyes dimmed and his shoulders slumped.
A crushing pressure built up in the woman’s chest as Tom struggled to remember who she was. It was not the first time he had forgotten her name or called her someone else, but the blow was painful all the same.
“That’s Jessi,” he said, but the woman could hear the unease in his voice.
The woman stood behind Tom. She wanted to sit beside him, but at that moment it felt easier to stand and pace than to sit and do nothing.
“I’m Willow, your daughter,” she said. She put her hand on his shoulder. He looked up and smiled, but the corners of his lips didn’t touch his eyes. With her tanned skin and her dark eyes, she was a mirror image of her father, but there were always these moments where he didn‘t recognize her.
“Oh, yes,” he said, but the confusion was still there.
“How has he been?” the doctor asked, this time turning to Willow.
“Same as always. Waking up in the middle of the night, forgetting things. We need to repeat a lot, but he’s still getting around fine. Sometimes he sings to himself, but I can’t always understand what he’s trying to say.”
“When he talks, does he slur?”
“No, not that I’ve noticed.”
The doctor shook his head and opened a file with Tom’s name written on the edges. Willow looked around the man’s office. Dr. Gadel. Esteemed researcher in neuroscience. Case study after case study, and here he was, looking for new patients willing to volunteer their bodies to science in a hope that it would not only help them, but others.
“Well, as I’m sure you know, all of Tom’s symptoms are signs of advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. You’re here to learn more about the clinical trial?”
“That’s correct. My husband has been researching Alzheimer’s on the side of his medical practice. He stumbled across some of your case studies in his research. We’ve tried a lot of things, but nothing seems to slow down the progression of the disease.”
“Your father was diagnosed,” Dr. Gadel looked down at the papers in front of him, “six years ago?”
“Yes, and the past year has been especially hard. He’s been forgetting who people are, where he is. He’s not himself anymore.”
Willow placed her hand on her father’s shoulder as she spoke. He smiled up at her, having no idea she was talking about him. That’s how the conversations seemed to go in their house. Willow and her husband could talk about Tom for hours, just feet away from him, and he would never know.
“So you’re considering having your father be a part of the clinical trial?”
Willow took a breath and pulled a chair out next to her father to sit. He stared at her wide-eyed, and for a moment, she let herself think he was still there. She looked into his chocolate brown eyes and felt herself reaching out to him. Did he know the decision she was forced to make?
“My father has been sick for a long time,” she said, still looking at him. He blinked back, lost in some other world. She looked at the wrinkles around his eyes, the way his shoulders fell forward. “There are some moments when he speaks and it’s like I have my father back. Maybe a memory has sparked in him, or me, or maybe both of us, but in that moment, I’m not wondering if my father is going to be okay.” Willow stopped to take a breath and turned towards the doctor. The corners of his mouth were inching down, his body completely still. “But those moments are becoming far and few. It doesn’t feel like he’s there anymore.”
As soon as she said the words, she felt as if she needed to take them back. Of course, her father was there. She held his hand, his cold and fragile hand, but the man she knew growing up? Where had he gone?
“You want your father back,” Dr. Gadel said.
“I’m afraid there’s not much else to hold onto.”
“I can’t make any guarantees the trial will work,” he said. “In fact, I can’t say it won’t make him worse. Everyone is different, but I will do everything in my power to make sure your father is a good match for this trial before we move forward. This means blood tests, MRIs, anything that can tell us as much as possible as to how your father’s brain works. But even then there are some things we can’t predict.”
“I understand,” Willow said. She looked at her father, but he was staring at his hands.
“The trial is for a new drug I’ve been working on. It’s part of an experiment that has been touched upon by scientists from around the world, but it originated in New Zealand. It started as a way to develop a sort of anti-venom for Alzheimer’s, but before you can develop an anti-venom, you must first have a venom. Naturally, a disease has no venom. What the scientists in New Zealand were working on was a venom-like solution that replicated the effects of Alzheimer’s.”
“Is that possible?” Willow ran through her years of nursing school knowledge on how venoms and poisons and diseases worked, but each seemed to be a separate entity. However, Willow knew that all it took to counteract a venom was to find the matching anti-venom. Could it be that simple?
“They created a serum. It was injected into sheep, mice, anything that would allow scientists to directly observe the effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain—granted, not a human brain.”
Every muscle in Willow’s body tensed, and she reached out for her father’s hand before Tom had a chance to know what was going on. She could picture her father in an examination room, a faceless figure standing close by ready to make an injection. What would it do to him? She stood up from her chair, and Tom looked back at her, his mouth gaping open. He was not an animal to be tested on.
“Willow, please sit. I’m not suggesting we do this type of experiment on your father.”
Her heart beat against her chest, and her blood pulsed at her temples. If her father hadn’t been there with her, she would have left the room before he had a chance to say anything else.
“I’m talking about a new serum that was created as a direct result of the anti-venom that was produced. They observed the animals that had been injected with the venom, studied their brains, the effects and why it affected it, and then created an anti-venom after years of study.”
A thin layer of sweat was still coating Willow’s skin. She looked at her father, the dazed look in his eyes, and sat back down.
“Did the anti-venom work?” she asked.
“It did,” Dr. Gadel said.
“But it only stops the progression of the disease.”
“In some cases, the brain was able to recover and return to a normal state, as if they had never been injected with a venom in the first place.”
Her breath caught and tears sparked her eyes. When she walked into the appointment today, she told herself one thing: do not hope for results. She covered her face with her hands and put her elbows on the table. What he was saying, it wasn’t supposed to be possible. After years and years of working in a hospital, she knew that there were just some things you could not fix. But could she be wrong?
“What would my father be doing?” she asked.
“He’d be injected with an anti-venom, Derilum. I’ve been working with a team of doctors to produce this drug, and it’s been approved for clinical trials. When I met your husband at a conference in Boston, I was presenting the drug to a panel, and he approached me afterwards asking for my card. He had read some of my research articles on the project.”
Willow nodded her head. Randy had given her Dr. Gadel’s card as soon as he got home from the conference, but she had been afraid to call. It sat at the bottom of her purse for a week before she called to make an appointment.
“Do you really think it would help?”
She felt a spark of life that she hadn’t felt in months. She never dared to let herself hope. Each doctor appointment ended in disappointment, but a flutter in her chest told her to stay.
“I think it could save your father’s life.”