Memory Walk sheds light on disease

Dr. Bernice Cohen Sachs, shown here in this 1965 photo, suffers from dementia. She is a medical pioneer and will turn 90 years old later this month. - Courtesy photo
Dr. Bernice Cohen Sachs, shown here in this 1965 photo, suffers from dementia. She is a medical pioneer and will turn 90 years old later this month.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Dr. Bernice Cohen Sachs was 8 years old when her family’s physician bellowed, “Girls don’t become doctors!”

The assertion came after Sachs’ mother, Rose, told the physician her daughter wanted to become a doctor.

More than 80 years later, Sachs owns a staggering medical resumé: she formerly was the president of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), Fellow of Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine and Fellow of American Society of Clinical Hypnosis; a consultant for the Chicago Board of Health; author of more than 30 medical publications; and voted 1966 Medical Woman of the Year by AMWA. The list continues, illustrating upwards of 50 years of medical service. She worked with the terminally ill, innovated hypnosis as a form of psychiatric therapy and broke ground on ill effects of tobacco.

Today, however, the 89-year-old medical pioneer has dementia, a disease she’s battled since 1996. Like millions of Americans, Sachs has lost many of her own memories.

That’s why the Alzheimer’s Foundation — for the families of people like Sachs — launched a “Memory Walk” in Silverdale 13 years ago.

The tradition continues, with the 13th annual Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk on Saturday, Sept. 20.

Between 300 and 400 supporters are expected to join in the walk, a non-competitive fund-raising celebration aimed to raise awareness and funds in local communities.

“It’s really about creating a day for celebration,” said Melissa Soules, Memory Walk coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association Western & Central Washington State Chapter. “Also, we’re working toward finding a cure.”

The Alzheimer’s Association hosts about 600 walks around the nation per year, Soules said, including four in Washington state in 2008 — Tacoma, Seattle and Mount Vernon, along with Silverdale.

Fund-raisers have accumulated more than $30,000 in donations, according to the association’s Web site, and Sachs’ daughter, Robin Murphy, has gathered more than $1,000.

Murphy hopes her work will inspire families in similar situations.

“I hope to see (the walk) grow and for more people to understand the disease,” she said.

And while Sachs’ mobility is now limited and she won’t make the event, Murphy will speak on her behalf.

“It’s not easy for the person with the disease and it’s not easy for the families,” Murphy said. “People need to support one another.”

The disease is becoming more prevalent, too, making awareness, support and information on the disease even more important. Soules said about 1,200 people are diagnosed with some form of Alzheimer’s every day.

Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and an estimated 10 million “baby boomers will develop the disease.”

“I think it’s important for people to talk about the disease, it’s becoming more rampant,” Murphy said. “You need to talk about the changes. People need to support one another.”

Sachs’ story serves as a reminder that nobody is immune to the disease.

Born about 10 miles outside New York City in Passaic, N.J., on her family’s kitchen table, Sachs was a brilliant child — charismatic, energetic, beautiful, loving.

A product of the Depression Era, she made ends meet by working as a soda jerk in a drug story and baby-sitting for neighborhood families while attending Passaic High School, where she collaborated on a song with classical composer George Rochberg. She graduated in 1935, being voted “Teacher’s Pet,” “Most Popular” and “Most Likely to Succeed.”

It took Sachs just three years to earn her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan, finishing in 1939.

She went on to graduate with honors from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1942 as one of only three women in that year’s graduating class.

Following medical school, Sachs became the first female intern accepted for post-graduate training at the Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. At Michael Reese she received the training that catapulted her high into the medical world.

With husband, Allan, whom she married in December 1941, Sachs moved to the Montlake District in Seattle, landing a job with Group Health as a physician. She worked there for 48 years before retiring in 1996.

In those years, she piled up award after award, making national and international media appearances.

She appeared on “Girl Talk” with Virginia Graham in 1965 and the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1966.

“She could capture the attention of 1,000 people in a room and you could hear a pin drop,” Murphy said.

The last 10 years of Sachs’ career were geared toward exercise and relaxation, focusing on people with terminal diseases and helping their families cope.

“She tells me that people would walk by her office and hear the families just absolutely laughing,” Murphy said. “I would have to say that everybody who ever met my mother ... would never forget her because she was so charismatic and so youthful.”

Murphy, who has six daughters and 11 grandchildren, said she wants her family to know what kind of a woman Sachs was — and still is.

“I want them to know what my mother was like,” she said. “She’s an icon, she’s a legacy, she was a pioneer.”

While memories of those accomplishments are fading away, Sachs continues to be the caring daughter, mother, grandmother and great grandmother she’s always been.

“I have the greatest amount of respect for how my mom has dealt with it,” she said, explaining that dementia sometimes makes people nasty, bitter and angry. “Still, even with the dementia, she taps into the heart of a person.”

Murphy said she has grown closer to her mother since the dementia started in 1996, as coping with grief has brought them together. Sachs and Murphy also lost their husbands — in 1994 and 2002, respectively.

“I’d say not only are we mother and daughter, we’re best friends,” Murphy said. “We’re kindred spirits, we’ve learned to deal with grief.”

While Sachs’ dementia has progressed slowly, there is no cure, meaning each passing day is precious.

“You have to roll with the punches, you have to not take it personally,” Murphy said. “You have to separate the disease from the person.”

In 2007, Sachs moved into Emeritus Oaks, a memory care community in Silverdale. The transition to assisted living, given the circumstances, has been relatively smooth.

Murphy, who lives in Gig Harbor but visits Sachs frequently, said Emeritus fosters a friendly atmosphere, something she and Sachs looked for when searching for a care facility.

Sachs, or “Queen B” as Murphy and others call her, will celebrate her 90th birthday later this month. Murphy prepared a video, depicting her mothers life, that she will show the entire family.

“There’s nothing more important than learning how to love your loved one with a memory disease,” Murphy said. “They need to be loved, accepted and nurtured.”

To register for the Memory Walk or for more information, call (206) 363-5500, extension 502. The Silverdale walk begins at 10 a.m. with registration beginning at 8:30 a.m. The walk begins at Waterfront Park.

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