On a drizzly April day in 2009, I walked into a hotel suite in downtown Pittsburgh to meet members of a North Dakota family stricken with a rare genetic mutation that guarantees early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
My life changed profoundly that day. Up to that point, I knew precious little about Alzheimer’s. I was a journalist on assignment for the University of Pittsburgh, whose Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center had been studying the DeMoe family for a few years. I was stunned by the magnitude and extent of their courage. Here was a family straight out of middle America, committing itself across generations to serving as research subjects for the most baffling disease of this generation. What science had not been able to solve in more than a century, the DeMoes vowed to defeat – or die trying.
Just as Alzheimer’s has been a formidable enemy hiding in plain sight, here now were its heroes, living next door in relative obscurity. Nobody knew what they were doing, save a few close friends. I wanted to change that.
My book, The Inheritance, took five years to research. Not only did I track multiple branches of the family across different states, I also had to retrace the history of the disease from Alois Alzheimer’s discovery in 1906 to the human clinical trials of today. In the process, I met several brilliant people I now consider friends, and was awed by the depth of their commitment.
I also gained a family. The DeMoes were more than any journalist could ever hope for: honest, charming, forthright, and welcoming. Their trust in me was at times overwhelming, and I felt an acute sense of responsibility to be worthy of that trust and to tell their story as faithfully and completely as I could. Not all of the people who started this journey with me lived to see its conclusion, but I felt their presence keenly as I wrote. I was there for births, deaths, weddings, graduations, divorces, goodbyes and new beginnings. I celebrated with one young woman as she learned she did not carry the mutation, and I delivered the eulogies at two funerals for those who did.
As each surviving family member held the book in their hands, I sensed that my task was complete, but my journey was only beginning. Through the sacrifices of this family, I hope to educate the world about the public health crisis we all now face, and inspire them to come together to finish what the DeMoes – and others – have started.
About the Author:
Niki Kapsambelis may be reached at www.nikikaps.com, via Twitter at @nikikaps, or on Facebook.
Niki Kapsambelis’ work has appeared in publications around the world, including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, People, and the Associated Press. A native of Boston, she now lives in Pennsylvania. The Inheritance is her first book.