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Editor's Comments on 'Memories of a Fuzzy Sweater'

 , May 11, 2018

Hippocrates once observed, “it is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” In “Memories of a Fuzzy Sweater,” Alyssa Vigliotti demonstrates this sentiment with poignant depictions of her grandmother “Nana” and a patient “Lucy,” whom she meets in medical school.

Both women suffered from dementia at the end of their lives, but Vigliotti pushes past their diagnosis to see the people beneath the disease. This is no easy feat in the case of dementia, which threatens a patient’s very personhood, breaking the hearts of their loved ones and challenging health care professionals that seek to connect with them.

When I was in middle school my great-grandmother developed Alzheimer’s dementia, too. My grandmother struggled to care for her as my mother mourned her own grandmother’s diminishing ability to maintain a grip on reality. For me it felt like a family member had suddenly become a stranger. I can only imagine how my great- grandmother’s providers struggled to connect with a woman who routinely called random telephone numbers to talk with strangers and wandered the streets of Washington, D.C. without objective or direction.

Dementia calls upon us as health care providers to work hard to find moments of connection with our patients, to identify what matters to them, and to be a therapeutic presence when sometimes all they can do is cry. Our charge is to treat the person, not their disease. Vigliotti challenges us to think creatively about therapies for these patients. In addition to much-needed research on the pathophysiology and neurochemistry of dementia, we should work to understand what makes our patients’ lives full and happy. This is as much a part of doctoring as is understanding neuroanatomy. In the end, the tactile sensation of a fuzzy sweater or the touch of a grandchild’s hand might go further in improving patients’ quality of life than any prescription we could write.

Irène Mathieu