My great-grandmother Grossee lived most of the way to 108 years. And up until the final few of them, her health seemed just about as solid as mine did.
Sure, she couldn’t walk or hear as well as she used to. But she knew where she was, and where she’d been, and who you were. And she still could do things like peel fruit and cut it up for a salad.
I don’t remember her getting that many colds or significant illnesses, either. (This may have been because she didn’t leave the house much as she grew older, and was less exposed to the public bustle of germs. Her retirement as a piano teacher in the early 1970s may have been a wise decision in that regard.)
In short, her core functions seemed remarkably strong for a person her age, up until maybe the last two or three years of her life.
But my grandfather’s calendar, and my relatives’ memories, teach me this week that it wasn’t always so.
On the day my Aunt Elaine heads back to college at Boston University, we have a call to the family doctor, Dr. Edward Malloy — and not a scheduled one, judging from the way it is written.
And on the next day, my great-grandma (she is the mother of the keeper of the calendar, hence “Ma”) goes to the hospital. Apparently her problem is not serious, as she is back at 1107 Hope Street by day’s end.
But that doesn’t seem to be the end of the story. In subsequent days, Dr. Malloy comes by for a house call, and my Aunt Elaine returns from Boston — not the sort of thing a college student usually does four days after leaving.
My aunt and my dad, looking back, don’t remember exactly what happened that week.
But they told me something I didn’t know: For a time, my great-grandma was troubled by short periods when she would lose touch with reality.
In my aunt’s words, they were “spells in which she would be unable to focus and would simply shrug her shoulders in confusion. … Their origin was unknown to the family for some time.”
Or, as my dad puts it: “I believe Grossee had a couple of “spells” in which she either passed out or went into la-la land briefly. Today I believe these are called TIAs. The first such episode might have scared your grandparents enough to call an ambulance.”
As my dad suggests, Grossee’s symptoms are consistent with what are now called transient ischemic attacks — in layman’s language, mini-strokes.
Like strokes, TIAs are caused by a disruption of blood flow to the brain. Unlike strokes, their effects can clear up within minutes or hours — though they are also capable of causing lasting damage. They also indicate an increased risk of real stroke.
My aunt and father indicate Grossee had several of these types of spells, and that the events described in September 1970 may have been the first.
By my aunt’s recollection, Doc Malloy didn’t find anything concrete to diagnose. When he retired in 1971, the family switched to a new doctor, who prescribed my great-grandma treatment for what he thought were seizures. (My aunt says my grandma described the medication as “something like a vitamin.”)
From today’s viewpoint, I’m not sure what that treatment would have been. Wikipedia (which, granted, must always be taken with a grain of salt) says lifestyle changes are the most commonly trusted prevention against TIAs, not vitamins or other medicine.
But, something worked — whether it was medication, or just the unknowable internal indomitability that kept my great-grandma getting up in the morning for so many years.
Grossee’s condition improved. She sidestepped serious, lasting damage. And, for most of the rest of her life, confusion and disorientation were not concerns. Certainly, they did not prevent her great-grandchildren from knowing her and interacting with her.
This seems like a good place to wish my readers a happy Thanksgiving. So I will. Let us all savor our plenty.