Tragedy, crisis and faith combined to put Jack Fussell of Georgia onto a path he had not planned for, and a path leading through Lonoke County on a cross-continent run. On Jan. 12, Fussell, 62, left Skidaway Island State Park at Savannah, Ga., on a run across the country, with Monterey, Calif., as a goal, and bringing attention to the Alzheimer’s Association and raise money for research into the disease and its cure.
Fussell rested for two nights at Lonoke Nursing and Rehabilitation Center two weeks ago. While there he visited various groups and organizations to speak about Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s is devastating. Of course is it hard for the one who has it, but it is the families and caregivers who struggle the most … That’s a big reason for the trip, and I have talked to over 400 people at the side of the road, so far,” Fussell said.
Though his own journey to championing the Alzheimer’s Association was obviously shaped by his family’s bouts with the disease, it is not what he started out to do.
Fussell said his father died of Alzheimer’s in 2000; for his father’s family that is six brothers and sisters killed by Alzheimer’s. “Seven out of a family of 12,” he said.
Genetics likely had much to do about it, Fussell said. “But that’s the problem with Alzheimer’s they don’t know that much about it, and more people are showing up with it,” he said.
Recognition has a lot to do with the increased diagnosis of the disease; it is also because people are living longer, Fussell said. Another line of thought is that cholesterol in some ways is good for the brain, and now years of reducing cholesterol is showing up as an increase of Alzheimer’s, he said.
“There is all sorts of stuff like, but there is not much money for research,” Fussell said.
“The biggest thing I have found with this trip is that I have anywhere from five to 15 people stop me every single day … pull off the road and wait on me and just want to tell me their Alzheimer’s story,” Fussell said. The effect of the disease can nearly be as devastating for caregivers as for the sufferer, he said.
One day in north Georgia he was inundated with so many accounts of the toll on families that he changed his own approach. “I started asking them, ‘Have you heard of the Alzheimer’s Association where you can get help?’” Fussell said. “Never heard of [the Association],” he said of the responses.
“I realized that there is huge disconnect between families that are struggling, ‘We don’t know what to do,’ … and they don’t know they can call the Alzheimer’s Association [for help]. It really shocked me that so many people don’t know the Association exists,” Fussell said.
Help from the Association can range from respite care — giving caregivers a break, to support groups, and other aids, Fussell said. Caring for an Alzheimer’s patient is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job, and takes a terrible toll on the usually single caregiver, Fussell said. “It has torn families apart.”
Fussell said that shortly after his father’s death, he found himself staring at death when he was stricken by a bleeding ulcer, probably brought on by the stress of his father’s illness. “I lost over 50 percent of my blood before I got to the hospital. They gave me two hours to live when I got there. They said my organs were all trying to shut down,” he said.
“Four days in intensive care; I prayed and I asked God, ‘If you get me out of here, I will get in shape. I don’t want to ever come back to a place like this again the rest of my life.”
He did survive, but the prognosis was not good, “They told me I might have a year to live,” he said.
But, Fussell said, he kept his end of his deal with God, and following a food pyramid diet and exercise he lost 102 pounds in 11 months. “I weighed 272 pounds when I began, I have lost 118 pounds, now,” he said.
Fussell said he had accomplished the loss by setting a series of goals, including five based on climbing the 604 steps of the staircase trail at Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park. “I said I would climb those stairs 10 times in one day, then 20, 30 and finally 50 times in one day. And I did it,” he said.
“Down and then back up was one trip, 1,208 steps,” Fussell said. It took five years to reach the goal of 50 trips, he said.
“It took me 17 hours and 28 minutes,” Fussell said of the 50 trips. But afterward, he found his spirit lagging, nearing a depression.
“I realized that all this time I had been working toward goals, but now I didn’t have one, I didn’t have anything to work for, it was dragging me down,” Fussell said.
After another prayer, he was impressed with the idea of running across the country, “From Georgia to California,” Fussell said. “The more I worked toward it, the better I felt, I felt myself lifting up. I had a goal to reach.”
It was about this time that the object of the trip became clear, Fussell said. “I was talking to someone about [the trip] and they asked if I was raising funds for something,” Fussell recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes, for the Alzheimer’s Association.’
“Now, I had not thought about doing something like that, that just came out. But I figured it is something I was to do, so I went with it,” Fussell said. He contacted the Association about fundraising for them, “And now, here I am, reaching new goals.”
The Association has coordinated stays at a number of facilities, such as the two nights at Lonoke Nursing and Rehabilitation, Fussell said. “The people here are great. I just love them,” he said.
“My route is based on visiting Alzheimer’s Association offices in the states I go through, so I wander around a little bit,” Fussell said.
“I have had to stay in my tent only one night so far,”
Fussell said he has set a goal of raising $250,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association. “I know from myself what this terrible disease does to everyone; I know from what hundreds of people have told me. We need to do everything we can to find a cause, a cure,” he said.
To keep up with Fussell on his run to California, go to the Website www.acrosstheland2013.com.
Editor’s Note: After leaving Lonoke, Fussell was called home on a family emergency. He pledges on his blog to return to Little Rock, where he left off, to continue the trip.