A Wrenching Look at Alzheimer’s

Slow Dancing With A Stranger
by Meryl Comer
HarperOne, 2014

Twenty years ago Meryl Comer was a successful, Emmy Award–winning business journalist, stunningly beautiful (though she is still that), at the top of her game. And then her world fell apart. At that time, Comer’s husband, Harvey Gralnick, was then fifty-six and the Chief of Hematology and Oncology at NIH. A dashing man who was physically fit, ran five miles each day, ate healthily, read voraciously, was an impeccable dresser, Gralnick was also at the top of his game—or so it seemed to the outside world. But, in reality, he was unraveling.

Cover of Slow Dancing with a Stranger by Meryl Comer.In her book, Slow Dancing with a Stranger, Comer bravely, beautifully details her excruciating journey through the maze of Alzheimer’s, an unforgiving disease.

When it became clear to Comer that her husband was slipping—often forgetting rudimentary details of his life such as how to get home, what to do with a tooth brush, where he was—she became fearful that he could be dangerous to himself and others. She decided to try to have him assessed by a psychiatrist. But, as she noted, smart people hide out and know how to fool others. And that was precisely what happened when the psychiatrist advised Comer, “the little woman worrier,” to just go home and have a drink and enjoy each other. And so it was years before a real evaluation could be made. By that time, other doctors at NIH had noticed Gralnick’s erratic behavior and he was finally relieved, one-by-one, of his operating privileges, his patients and, ultimately, his job.

Comer probably did herself no favor in the beginning. Thinking it was good for him, she made sure her husband stayed in prime physical shape with weights and a trainer. 6’4” and ripped, he became Alzheimer’s answer to Rocky. As a result when he came to the part in this hideous disease when the patient becomes either placid or angry, Gralnick became angry—at times even violent. During that period Gralnick punched out two of Comer’s front teeth and soon after was kicked out of nursing homes because the staff was so frightened of him. It was a difficult, even unbearable. But Comer, always loyal, never a quitter, hung in there.

In the interest of full disclosure here, this is the point at which I met Meryl Comer. Because of her husband and my mother, who had died ten years earlier, we were both interested in doing something concrete to raise the visibility of Alzheimer’s. At that point, Alzheimer’s seemed to be a footnote to NIH and the public in general. Harvey Gralnick was then in his eighth year of the disease. Initially I was struck, as everyone is, by Meryl’s stunning elegance. And then I heard her story. But until now, I hadn’t heard all of the painful details fleshed out in her book.

At first Meryl Comer simply left her high paying, very visible job to take care of her husband. But soon she realized that their savings were dwindling. To keep them afloat, Meryl got jobs during the day—handing Harvey off to nurses—but at night for a twelve-hour shift, she was in charge. Sleeping in the same bed to make sure he was okay, Meryl bathed, toileted, changed the sheets during the night and gently stoked Harvey’s forehead reassured him that he was safe.

Now, eighteen years after he received the diagnosis Gralnick is in hospice—they come to the house—and has been for over two years. And Meryl is still there with him, though he is essentially comatose, and the personal details of his life are left up to her. She still sleeps in the same bed with him and still talks and reads to him—patiently and lovingly, though their marriage was far from ideal. And if that weren’t enough, Meryl’s ninety-four-year-old mother, who suffers from late stage Alzheimer’s, has moved in as well. If there is a heaven, Meryl Comer will certainly have a front row seat.

But—and I think I buried the lead here—I am afraid that Harvey may actually outlive Meryl. People don’t understand why she has stayed, why she hasn’t put him in a nursing home. Part of it is economics. But it is also that she couldn’t bear to see her husband over-sedated or tied up, which inevitably happens. Besides, for years the doctors and hospice professionals have told her that her husband couldn’t possibly last more than another three months. As we all know, medicine is not an exact science. What Meryl emphasizes is that this decision is right for her, but she truly makes no judgment about caretakers who choose a different way. So she tends, and cares, but she decided not to wait to do something about this disease. Meryl Comer has decided to flip the pain and galvanize into action.

And this is where her fight begins. She knows the stats: An estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s; approximately 15 million Americans are unpaid caregivers for a person with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. But where is the money to be invested in research? Why does our government allot 3 billion research dollars to HIV/AIDS, a largely manageable disease, and only 550 million research dollars to Alzheimer’s, a 100 percent fatal disease? Meryl Comer is a founding member of USAgainstAlzheimer’s, which is devoted to finding a way to stop Alzheimer’s by 2020. She is changing the conversation from acceptance of what is to demanding what should be.

Slow Dancing with a Stranger is poetically, persuasively written. It is a must read. But make no mistake, it is a tough, bare, wrenching read. Ultimately, though, that’s what it should be. Every congressional representative and U.S. senator and governor should be kept in his/her office until he/she reads it (No “Cliff’s Notes”). Meryl Comer wants people to get mad and then focus on the solution. Because God help this country if we don’t.


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