Like so many little girls, Joanna Brooks aspired to be a ballerina or a fairy princess. Instead, the tall, well-spoken woman was better suited to be a PhD college professor and an academic dean, little knowing that her career would be over in her early 40s and today, at age 48, she faces a death sentence.
The featured speaker at the Alzheimer's Association's Reason to Hope fundraiser, Joanna Brooks said she had mild balance and memory issues after her vehicle was rear ended. It got worse and one day she started teaching a class, unaware it was the wrong class. She walked her dog and didn't know where she was. "Mild cognitive impairment," neurologists said. She grew hopeless, she admits. Five months ago, after years of misdiagnosis, she learned she has Young Onset Alzheimer's. There is no cure. There are no survivors.
What bugs her, she admits, is "the stigma." People stare accusingly at the healthy-looking young woman in a car with handicap plates. They say "you don't look old enough," and her favorite, "you don't look like you have Alzheimer's."
She tearfully shared that the day she called her fiance, Forrest Fix, with the diagnosis, he immediately called her father to ask his blessing to marry her. This from a fiance whose name she forgot several times. The wedding is in September.
Today she's an advocate for the Alzheimer's Association (alz.org.co) to spread the word that anyone can be affected.
The luncheon, said Brooks and the organizers, is a Reason to Hope because possibly in that gathering of 370 people sharing lunch, "the first survivor is out there."
An estimated 67,000 Coloradans have Alzheimer's and there are almost 250,000 caregivers. Many caregivers and family members were luncheon attendees, sharing common phrases: "My mother has Alzheimer's and Gran did, too," "my husband had Alzheimer's and forgot who I was before he died," "my father has it and is here today but doesn't understand why."
And on the screen up front in the ballroom, family members wearing shirts with the hopeful "I go purple to end ALZ." They're in search of Joanna Brooks' fairy princess.
Upcoming: Walk to End Alzheimer's, Sept. 16, America the Beautiful Park and Denver City Park.
More photos: gazette.com/life/around-town