EAST NAPLES — Charlie Bryant could tell something was strange back home in Naples.
He was told his mother, Stephanie Brown-Bryant, who recently had turned 58, wasn't keeping his childhood home immaculate any more.
He learned she wasn't in daily contact with his older sister, Ashleigh, who still lives in Naples, or with her own mother who lives around the corner in the Kings Lake community.
"For Mother's Day, I purchased a ticket for her to visit me," Bryant, 24, said.
He was living in Providence, R.I., working in restaurant management, after graduating the year before from Johnson & Wales University.
"She had a blank stare on her face," he said. "She looked like she had aged 25 years since I had seen her in December. That ride home I was blown away."
Little did Bryant know how rapidly his life would spiral into a quest for answers from medical professionals that proved as puzzling as the diagnosis he ultimately received.
He was told his mother has Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CJD, a rare degenerative brain disorder that in all likelihood will end her life in a matter of weeks or months.
That is unimaginable in itself, but her rapid decline from one week to the next is beyond comprehension.
Once a vibrant woman with glistening dark hair that hung down the length of her back, she can no longer speak or walk. She can't bathe herself, let alone brush her hair.
Bryant moved back to Naples to be his mother's caretaker.
He has learned about the shortcomings of the health-care system for a middle-aged woman who is uninsured but how benevolence exists elsewhere.
"He's doing remarkably," said Jacque Luciani, a friend of his mother's who comes to the home often to help. "He's doing things he never expected to do. I don't think anyone is expected to do that for a parent."
He puts on a good face but admits he doesn't always have it together.
"I have my moments when no one is around," he said. "It's stressful."
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When his mother first arrived in Providence, Bryant thought she had suffered a stroke. She mixed up his place for her Naples home. She thought she had gone outside for exercise when she hadn't.
He couldn't convince her to see a doctor. When he got her to an emergency room, she talked him into leaving after a five-hour wait before being seen. She returned to the hospital just before Memorial Day weekend.
She had an MRI, a CAT scan and an electroencephalogram, EEG, to record her brain's electrical pattern. She was admitted and doctors did memory tests.
When doctors told Bryant they believed she has CJD, he had nothing to go on.
"I was Googling it," he said.
They tested for a certain protein in her brain linked to CJD but said the results would take six to eight weeks. The doctors also said they could do no more. She was discharged to his care. He was overwhelmed.
"They said there was no treatment, no medicine. I like freaked out," he said.
Bryant figured they would stay in Providence but soon realized that wouldn't work.
"Meals took two hours; she ate slowly," he said. "It was around-the-clock for me and she got up and walked around the house in the middle of the night. It was crazy."
In mid-June, the hospital called that his mother had tested positive for a protein tied to CJD. He booked a ticket to Naples.
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CJD affects about one in every million people annually worldwide, with about 200 cases each year in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Strokes.
There are three major categories of the disease; "sporadic" which accounts for 85 percent of cases and no known risk factors, "hereditary" which involves a family history; and "acquired," where exposure is tied to contaminated surgical instruments or certain medical procedures.
In addition, there's variant CJD that is linked to eating contaminated beef. That gave rise to 175 cases in humans in the United Kingdom and 49 additional human cases elsewhere by the late 1990s, according to the World Health Organization.
That's the human form of "mad cow" disease but the CJD foundation and medical professionals avoid calling it that, said Florence Kranitz, the foundation's president.
There have been no cases of variant CJD in humans in the United States which have originated in the U.S., she said.
In Florida, there's been about 16 deaths from CJD a year, none the variant form, and that's in keeping with the trend of one case per 1 million population, according to the Florida Department of Health.
One case was reported in Collier County last year; the first since 2007 when there was another case, said Deb Millsap, spokeswoman for the local health department.
"One or two cases does not raise red flags because some could be genetic and that is restricted to the family," Kranitz said.
For certain, the disease is horrific; she experienced it firsthand when her husband died 12 years ago from CJD, two months after diagnosis.
"That's not unusual," she said.
Sometimes a diagnosis doesn't
happen until a few weeks before a loved one dies.
Everyone has difficulties getting the proper diagnosis, Kranitz said, and confirmation is only after death when brain tissue is examined.
"Neurologists, they don't see it (in their practices) and may have spent 10 minutes studying it in medical school and many don't recognize it," Kranitz said.
"I think sometimes families are completely thrown; it's like being hit by a freight train," Kranitz said. "Families have so little quality time left. We encourage them to just take care of their loved one."
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Once he and his mother were back in Naples, Bryant was advised to call Avow Hospice.
Home-health aides from Avow come in five days a week to help with his mother's daily living needs. She gets music therapy and massages.
"One month to three months, there's no clue how long she's had it," he said. "I beat myself up if I'm down enough."
His sister, Ashleigh, 27, helps and so does his 89-year-old grandmother, Irene Brown. His parents were divorced but his father, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran, still lives in Naples and comes by.
Home Depot recently replaced the broken air-conditioning system and City Mattress delivered a new mattress for his mother.
She's not in pain but hospice staff suggested symptom management medication. He said ''no.''
"I know she doesn't want it," he said. "She knows my presence. She is comfortable. She doesn't express pain. She shakes her head 'no.'"
Neighbors consistently bring in homemade or take-out food. Bryant struggles sometimes to remember all their names.
"We have no less than 50 people through these doors every day," he said.
He is grateful for the outpouring, from his university and from all who know his family.
"I'm the Facebook generation networking," he said.
Bryant is preparing for a celebration of her life, making several hundred tie-dyed T-shirts, in bright colors, for a beach sunset memorial to her life.
"She was a hippie, a free spirit," he said. "She drove a Corvette."
One recent afternoon, his mother woke slowly after a long nap. His grandmother, Irene Brown, stroked her still-long hair. She sits stiffly in a wheelchair, her fingers curled; her upper body trembling.
"I'm here baby, I'm here," Brown said. "You look great."
She opens her eyes but her blank gaze is upward, seemingly unaware of her home surroundings for the past 28 years.
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