Transcription of Tess Gerritsen for the show Alzheimer’s, #114

Male:              You’re listening to the ‘Dr. Lisa Radio Hour and Podcast’, recorded in the studio of ‘Maine Magazine’ at 75 Market Street, Portland, Maine. Download past shows and become a podcast subscriber of Dr. Lisa Belisle on iTunes. See the Dr. Lisa website or Facebook page for details.

Here are some highlights from this week’s program.

Dr. Tess:         It’s terrifying. It is really terrifying. I think that everybody is terrified of Alzheimer’s especially if we’ve seen that helping to our family member. I think what’s really scary is knowing what a large percentage of the American population is going to come down with it.

If you live above older than 85, there’s one in three chance you are going to get dementia of some kind.

Leon:              There isn’t a solution. There is a process that you have to go through and hope for the best ending.

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Dr. Lisa:          This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to the Dr. Lisa Radio Hour and Podcast. Show number 114, ‘Alzheimer’s’, airing for the first time on Sunday, November 17th, 2013.

Today’s guests include Dr. Tess Gerritsen, bestselling author and former physician, and Leon Duff, volunteer and board member of the Hospice of the Waterville Area.

What does it mean to lose one’s mind, to become someone unrecognizable to our loved ones and peers? Today’s guests unfortunately have witnessed the scenario firsthand. They have seen family members transform by the brain illness, Alzheimer’s. As individuals who have relied heavily on their own brains in creating a livelihood for themselves, they offer compelling perspectives on what it means when that is no longer possible. We hope that we are able to give your minds something to ponder as we speak with Tess Gerritsen and Leon Duff about Alzheimer’s. Thank you for joining us.

Maine has many good doctors and many good writers living amongst its boarders, within its boarders I should say. Some people happen to be both, not many, but some. One of them is the individual we have sitting across the microphone from us today. This is Dr. Tess Gerritsen who is both a physician and also a bestselling internationally known author. We’re very privileged to have you in the studio with us today.

Dr. Tess:         I’m very happy to be here.

Dr. Lisa:          I’ve been, as I was saying to you before we’ve got on the air, I’ve been listening to one of your most recent books from ‘The Rizzoli and Isle Series’, and it just strikes me that it must be an interesting world that you live within, always kind of creating what’s going to go next on the page.

Dr. Tess:         I think it comes from my childhood history of loving horror films. My mother used to take me to many, many horror films because that was her favorite kind of movie. I think I grew up thinking that there’s a dark side to everything. It means that every morning when I wake up, I think, “What’s the worst that could happen today?” I think that that’s also why my children have learned to be cautious about life because mom is always saying, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Dr. Lisa:          You dedicated this most recent book that I have been listening to to your mother. It really is your experience with your mother most recently that has, I guess spurred you to talk about this very serious subject of Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Tess:         Yes, it was my father primarily. My dad was in his early ‘60s when we began to realize something was wrong. He was having trouble finding his way home, he was having trouble driving, he would ask the same questions over and over, and it progressed very rapidly. He’s the only one in our family that I’m aware of who came down with Alzheimer’s. We knew early on that this was going to be bad.

He fell apart pretty much in San Diego. He lives on the other coast. I was spared the worst of having to deal with it, but his sister, my aunt was amazing. She was able to hire people to stay with him. My father never had to leave his house. He stayed in his house until he died.

Of all the experiences of Alzheimer’s, I feel very fortunate that I had such help, but I’m thinking about all these people in the country who don’t have that help or struggling with this every day in their own homes.

Dr. Lisa:          How did this impact your mother then?

Dr. Tess:         My mother had divorced my father earlier on, so she was not involved. She moved in closed to us in Maine. Then again, we saw dementia in her as well, not Alzheimer’s, dementia. I think that hers was probably more cardiovascular than anything else. Yes, I have two parents who died with dementia.

Dr. Lisa:          That would be an interesting thing also being a physician and knowing if you have two parents that have this very disabling disease, the likelihood that you could be yourself someday afflicted with this is probably fairly high.

Dr. Tess:         It’s terrifying. It is really terrifying. I think that everybody is terrified of Alzheimer’s, especially if we’ve seen it helping to our family member. I think what’s really scary is knowing what a large percentage of the American population is going to come down with it.

If you live above older than 85, there’s one in three chance you are going to get dementia of some kind. You could be as healthy as a horse. You could walk … My father, when he died, he could walk for miles without getting short of breath. He had a perfect machine as a body, but there was no computer directing it.

Dr. Lisa:          As a physician and an author, who is always thinking like, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Does this thought enter your mind that, “What’s the worst that could happen to you?”

Dr. Tess:         Absolutely. Every little thing like I can’t remember a word, it sets off this whole chain of, “Oh my God. This is the beginning. This is Alzheimer’s about to blossom.” I do so many things that we’re told to do to prevent this. I exercise, I drink red wine, I get lots of sleep, I eat fresh vegetables, but no matter what you do, some people are going to be struck down with it. It makes me I think more committed than ever to doing something for research.

We spent $200 billion a year in this country dealing with Alzheimer’s among Americans, and we’re looking at in the year 2050 having that increase five times as the population gets older, and yet we’re spending so little on research.

The one thing that’s actually killing Americans, not Al-Qaeda. It’s not Al-Qaeda who’s actually killing Americans, it’s Alzheimer’s. It’s all these other things that we are not devoting our resources to.

Dr. Lisa:          Which is interesting because we know that we’re an aging population, and mainly especially know that we’re an aging population and this is one of these diseases that typically occurs amongst our population.

Dr. Tess:         Yes. Yes. I was reading something from the Alzheimer’s Association, that of the top six things that kill Americans, Alzheimer’s is the one disease that we don’t have any prevention for, we don’t have any treatment for, it’s just increasing.

Every other illness in the top six has shown improvement over the last 10 years, but Alzheimer’s is gone the other way.

Dr. Lisa:          You obviously had a slightly different family situation and as you said, your aunt helped take care of your father and you felt very fortunate in that way. You also had your mother move in close to where you were, so there was a lot of family support, but many families don’t have that. Is the work that you’re doing with Alzheimer’s research, are you also hoping to create awareness of the families who don’t have that type of support, they might be able to reach out and find the kind of support that they need?

Dr. Tess:         I think I have a great … What I have is incredible sympathy for everybody who’s dealing with this, both the patients and the families. My focus is really on prevention on future treatment on the basic science that should be working at into this so that we don’t have to deal with this anymore.

By the time you are showing signs of Alzheimer’s, it’s too late. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it. I would love for us to get ahead of that as a country. I was in high school when we put our first man on the moon. I remembered John Kennedy saying, “This is our next mission. We are going to go to space and we’re going to land on the moon.” Why couldn’t we be doing that with something that is affecting so much of America and also that’s going to bankrupt us.

It seems like it’s penny-wise to start putting money into research now to just, at least when people get to 85, have them still be productive, have them not depend on their families and so many other resources. It makes me angry. The truth is I’m very angry with the way our tax dollars are spent, how we spend them so much on battleships that we may not ever use, all these transport planes and these bombers that we are not using, and they are not helping Americans.

What’s really destroying us right now is coming from within, and that’s disease, that’s illness, that’s the stresses that go into taking care of elderly, people with dementia.

Dr. Lisa:          Do you think the part of the reason that we spend so much on these external things is it’s easier to deal with something that’s outside of us than something that might be inside of us?

Dr. Tess:         I would say the reason we’re spending so much money on it is lobbyists. I think the Defense Industry has some amazing lobbyists. I think they consider this as being part of their jobs program. I think that scientists need a jobs program. I think we should be putting that money into people who are directly helping Americans.

Dr. Lisa:          Your book is focused on crime, mystery, darkness … How are you able to simultaneously be writing about the things that go bump in the night, and also maintain a sense of hope about the future of Alzheimer’s research?

Dr. Tess:         The things that go bump in the night are, I think it’s my anxiety is getting put on the page. I sleep very well. If I have a nightmare, I tend to use that in a book. In fact I as I say, I’m one of the few people who welcomes nightmares because they end up being productive.

I think that I am able to get my fears out on the page and that is probably very healthy. In fact, I would say that the least violent, most pacifistic people are crime writers who write horrifying crimes on the page. We get out our aggressions there.

I think what I fear about Alzheimer’s is that, that’s the real world fear. That’s something that I see all around me, and I never want to write about that. In fact, if you pick up a book of a thriller novel, you’ve almost never see it address the subject of Alzheimer’s. Writers don’t want to write about it. Readers don’t want to read about it because it’s too close to us.

Dr. Lisa:          It’s also messy.

Dr. Tess:         It’s messy. It’s not the glamorous kind of thing as, “Oh, there’s a purp, there’s a murder. Let’s solve the mystery,” and then by the end of the story, it’s all resolved. The only way you can resolve Alzheimer’s is when somebody dies.

Dr. Lisa:          I think it also takes people back to … When you watch somebody with Alzheimer’s move progress towards death, you’re watching them devolve, you’re watching them go from being an adult person to being more child-like and …

Dr. Tess:         Yes, that’s been a powerful child.

Dr. Lisa:          A very powerful child. Right.

Dr. Tess:         Yes.

Dr. Lisa:          It’s this very … It brings you right back to the fact that we’re all very human, we all eventually grow old and die.

Dr. Tess:         We don’t like to talk about that, just like we don’t like to talk about cancer or AIDS. I remember my literary agent telling me, she said, “You can write about serial killers. People will buy books about that. They’ll buy books about horrific crimes, but nobody wants to buy a book about cancer or AIDS or Alzheimer’s.” That’s why New York does not want to see those because we are all truly terrified of those things, and that’s not what we want to address and try and entertain ourselves by reading a book.

Dr. Lisa:          You’ve been writing for a long time. I believe 1987 was what I …

Dr. Tess:         Yes. Yes. I have been. I guess that would make it 26 years now.

Dr. Lisa:          This was your maternity leave after having given birth to your son. Is that what I remember reading somewhere?

Dr. Tess:         Yes. That was really how I eased my way out of medicine. I was working as a doctor, and then I gave birth, and was home for a couple of months. My son was a very good napper. I would put him down and he’d be asleep for two and a half hours. That was enough time to write maybe two pages. My first book was written while I was home with my very good sleeping son.

Dr. Lisa:          You’re a very hardworking writer. You have written many, many books. I was very impressed when I went and looked at your website to see all the books that you have written over the years. I think I’ve read maybe three or four of them. I was realizing, “I have to catch up now. I haven’t …” You’re not very old and somehow you’ve managed to just keep writing and writing and writing?

Dr. Tess:         People think that I must be really productive, but all I really do is write a book a year. That I can manage. I can manage a book a year but primarily because I’m forced to. My publisher wants a book a year, and it’s just a matter of longevity. If you keep doing that every year, you live long enough, it’s going to look like you were writing like crazy.

I think I have a pretty … it’s a pretty relaxed schedule. I can turn in four pages a day and I’ll be happy. That takes up maybe six hours a day. That leaves a lot of time for other things like gardening and hanging out with my son on his farm and a lot of travel. I could not ask for fairly a better career.

Dr. Lisa:          Yet, I think you might be underselling yourself just [cad 00:15:10] because I have interviewed many authors and there is also the travelling associated with promoting your book, there are the readings that you do, and really in this day and age, you have to be a self-starter not only as somebody who sells your books, but also as somebody who writes.

Dr. Tess:         That is true.

Dr. Lisa:          It is actually very difficult for anybody who’s listening who thinks, “It’s just four pages a day.” It is not easy to do that.

Dr. Tess:         It is focus. I think I’ve always been focused since I was a child. I remember that I would be reading a book and I wouldn’t hear people calling me because I was so focused on the story.

There are a couple of tricks to being able to turn in a book a year. My trick is primarily don’t stop to edit. I write from beginning to end, and I see the flaws as I’m working on the book, but I always tell myself, “I can go back and fix that.”

A lot of authors who can’t seem to finish their books, it’s because they keep editing and they edit the first 50 pages again and again. They never get beyond that. You have to learn to accept imperfection in your first draft. Learn that it’s okay to write badly because nobody has to see that. As long as you give yourself permission to write badly, at least you’ll write. Then after the first draft is done, I look back at it, and I’m very depressed because I can see how bad it is, and then I just proceed to do the rewrites. Maybe about the third rewrite, it starts to look okay. I don’t turn in the books usually until about five rewrites later. It all comes from at least having something to work with and something to revise, and that requires finishing the first draft.

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Dr. Lisa:          What did your parents say to you once you finally went through medical school, became a doctor, and then decided, “Oh, I’m going to be a writer after all.”

Dr. Tess:         I got the medical degree. That’s what mattered to them, and that was something that they thought I could always fall back on. My mother was really proud of me because she lived long enough to see my success. My dad unfortunately got his Alzheimer’s before he could appreciate that I had become a writer. My mother used to take me to horror films. You’ve read my book. You know how scary that can be.

All my mother would read every one of my books and her comment was usually, “It could have been scarier.”

Dr. Lisa:          That’s something, that it’s also interesting to me that your mother would bring you to horror films. Many people try to protect their children, and instead, your mother was doing the opposite.

Dr. Tess:         My mom … It’s because she loved horror films. Her English was not that good, because she was an immigrant. Horror films I think you need the least facility with the English language to understand what’s going on. The monster doesn’t need to say a thing. You just need to … It’s all visuals. That’s part of the reason she loved horror films.

My brother and I spent … We were really young and we were screaming in these movie theaters. This is before the ratings, the Parental Guidance ratings. We saw a lot of movies that probably severely damaged me as a child. When I look back on them, I try to analyze what made certain movies scary. The monster movies, you saw those, you got scared, you left and that was fine. You didn’t think about them anymore.

The two scariest films I can remember, one of them was a movie called, ‘On the Beach’. It was about the aftermath and nuclear war. At the end of the movie, everybody is dead. All of humanity is dead. Oh my God. That was an incredibly depressing thing for a child to watch because I sort of imagined that movies were reflection of real life and I kept watching the news about the nuclear testing and thinking, “What is wrong with humanity? Why are we going towards this destruction?”, because that movie terrified me. The other movie that had this really long effect on me was the original black and white version of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. Older people remember that. The reason, if in case a lot of your listeners don’t know what that movie is about, it’s about these sea pods that come from outer space. While you sleep, they take over your body. Your personality disappears, but you look exactly the way you are and the sea pods have taken over your body. Nobody can really see it except for those who are close to them. You can go to bed one night, wake up and mommy is no longer mommy. No matter what you say, nobody believes you.

I’m trying to think, “Why was that so scary?” because there was no violence in this film at all. What it was a metaphor for as a child is affection. It was the people you love are no longer the people you love. It’s a metaphor for divorce, for somebody having an affair, for your parents no longer loving you … It was all the things that kids are afraid of. I think that that’s psychologically was pretty disturbing to a child.

Dr. Lisa:          What’s also interesting because that ends up happening with Alzheimer’s, really.

Dr. Tess:         That’s absolutely true. Now that you say it, I’m thinking, “I slap myself on the face.” Why didn’t I not think of that? You’re absolutely right. It’s the people you love are no longer the people that you think they are.

Dr. Lisa:          Also, you’ve talked about ‘The Mephisto Club’, you talked about this possibility that there are those walking amongst us who are not what they seem.

Dr. Tess:         Yes.

Dr. Lisa:          That also brings through with the whole people having … They’re supposed to something but they’re something else.

Dr. Tess:         I think it’s a fear of what really lies beneath the smiling face. That particular book I dealt with, I think really we would classify as sociopaths or psychopaths is the other term that some people use. People who seem friendly, they seem reliable, they seem like they’re normal people but underneath there’s no empathy there. There is the possibility of violence. There is somebody who’s going to be using you or abusing you, and yet smiling the whole time. That’s scary. The question always is, “How many of this people are around us? What percentage of people are sociopaths?”

I’ve heard statistics that say maybe 10% of us were there and probably a lot of them are Wall Street bankers. I don’t know … Businessmen. It takes a certain amount of heartlessness to get ahead.

Dr. Lisa:          Actually, I think that there’s a very recent book that was written about the advantages of having a sociopathic personality and …

Dr. Tess:         Yes, they become very successful.

Dr. Lisa:          They do actually. They said among doctors, surgeons tend to be very high on the list which is not to ding surgeons because I have two siblings who are surgeons. I don’t think that they are this way. I think it crosses lots of different professions.

Dr. Tess:         it does, and you probably see them cluster in certain professions. I think the least number of sociopaths are going to be probably elementary school teachers and social workers. They’re probably that. it’s probably like point one percent of them are sociopaths. Those who become successful financially, those who have to get ahead, those who would probably get there by stabbing other people on the back, yes, that’s going to be a higher number of sociopaths.

Dr. Lisa:          All of this is very interesting because I think that what most of us fear to some great degree is not really knowing that this idea that things are not as they seem, that this sense of groundlessness, and we’ve talked about this with other people who have come on the show before that we all like to have some solidity to our lives. What you explore in your books is the fact that there really isn’t as much solidity as we even think. Now you’re talking about Alzheimer’s where all bets are off eventually.

Dr. Tess:         I think that the heart of a mystery novel is that people are not what they seem. The killer is always disguised. You don’t know who this killer is, and it’s rooting through the various suspects and figuring out, “Who has got something to hide?” That is … I think we do that in every day life as well. “Who do you decide to marry? Did you marry a sociopath or did you marry the beta social worker?”

We have to make these decisions and we have to use our own instincts, but sometimes we’re wrong, and sometimes we marry the wrong person and find out only too late.

Dr. Lisa:          I appreciate you coming in and talking to us today about so many different subjects about Alzheimer’s and the work that you’re doing to promote Alzheimer’s research and fundraising for that, also the books that you’ve written, your experiences with being a writer over the span of many years now, and also your time spent in Maine. I’m sure people listening to this will each come away with their own interesting, individual take on our conversation. I appreciate you being here.

We’ve been speaking with Dr. Tess Gerritsen who is an author and physician and also advocate for Alzheimer’s research.

Dr. Tess:         Thank you very much.

Dr. Lisa:          As a physician and a small business owner, I rely on Marci Booth from Booth Maine to help me with my own business, and to help me live my own life fully.

Here are a few thoughts from Marci.

Marci:             I usually take this time to talk about business and personal finance. Today, I would just like to say to all the people living with Alzheimer’s and to their families, friends and supporters that you are all inspirations. I join you in hoping that someday, we will see an end to this horrible disease. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of you.

I’m Marci Booth. Let’s talk about the changes you need.

Male:              This segment of the Dr. Lisa Radio Hour is brought to you by the following generous sponsors, Mike LePage and Beth Franklin or RE/MAX Heritage in Yarmouth, Maine, Honesty and Integrity can take you home. With RE/MAX Heritage, it’s your move. Learn more at

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