Friday, May 31, 2013

Strangling of patient in nursing home a shuddering reminder of subpar care for Huntington’s disease

The strangling and serious injury of a 49-year-old, late-stage Huntington’s disease patient at an Oregon nursing home has shocked the HD community and provided a shuddering reminder of the subpar care, fueled by ignorance and approaching neglect, that some affected by the disease face.

Anne Haskins was allegedly strangled by another patient who used  a call cord ripped from the wall after Haskins, wheelchair-bound and cognitively disabled, wandered into the other woman’s room shortly before 9 p.m. PDT on May 28, said Rebecca Ambrose, 29, Anne’s daughter.

There’s no evidence Anne deliberately provoked the other patient, whom police described as suffering from “severe dementia,” but her HD chorea – the involuntary movements typical in HD – means she can inadvertently hit people with her arms.

Anne was taken to Bay Area Hospital, located in Coos Bay, OR. After the attack, her heart rate dropped to the dangerously low rate of around 30 beats per minute, said Rebecca in a phone interview on May 30.

Anne is currently in the hospital’s cardiac unit. Doctors offered the option of a pacemaker, but the family decided against one because they believe it would simply help to prolong suffering, Rebecca said.

“She may have lost too much oxygen to the brain to recover from this,” she added.

The incident took place at Avamere Rehabilitation of Coos Bay, a private facility where Anne has resided since August of 2009.

Anne Haskins, grandson Andrew, and dog Scarlet, about ten years ago, before HD left her unable to speak and care for herself (family photo)

‘Where was the staff?’

According to the Coos Bay police, the alleged perpetrator is under observation in the psychiatric ward at Bay Area Hospital. Avamere has prohibited the alleged perpetrator from returning to its facility, Rebecca added.

“Where was the staff???” Rebecca exclaimed in several private Facebook HD discussion groups. Rebecca agreed to allow inclusion of her Facebook comments in this article.

On the night of the attack, the certified nurses assistants (CNAs), the main caregivers at the facility, should have put Anne to bed by 7:30. However, she was still moving around in her wheelchair around 9. No CNA noticed that she entered the other woman’s room. A CNA came upon the injured Anne sometime later, said Rebecca.

The police received a call for help at 8:49 p.m. According to Officer Randy Sparks, the lead detective on the case, a nurse, responding to the call alarm from the room, intervened to assist Anne.

“It just makes me angry,” Rebecca said. “I felt that it could have been foreseen. It makes me angry to think that my mom could be killed, and neither the person who did it nor the nursing home could be liable for it.

“How could one bedridden patient strangle another bedridden patient and no CNA have a clue? There were five CNAs on the floor, according to the director of the home.”

According to Deborah Nedelcove, Avamere’s vice president of risk management and its chief compliance and privacy officer, 42 residents currently occupy the 90-bed Coos Bay facility.

Above, the strangulation mark on Anne's neck. Below, daughter Liz with Anne in Bay Area Hospital (family photos)

Detective Sparks has concluded his investigation and forwarded his report to the district attorney’s office. However, those authorities have already have informed Rebecca that criminal charges will not likely be filed because of the mental state of the alleged perpetrator, Rebecca explained.

The alleged perpetrator is not currently under arrest.

“The police can investigate if there is a criminal action by a patient,” she added. “They cannot investigate neglect by nursing home staff.”

Avamere’s response

Debbie Lane, the Avamere director of nursing, refused comment on the case, as did Britta Milius, the nurse in charge when I called the facility the evening of May 30.

VP Nedelcove, who works at the Wilsonville, OR, corporate headquarters of the 50-facility private company primarily doing business in Oregon and Washington, declined to comment on specifics of the case but offered some observations about the facility and Avamere’s policies, procedures, and philosophy.

“I have never heard of an incident like this,” Nedelcove, who has some thirty years’ experience in health care, said of the strangulation and Rebecca’s allegation of inadequate monitoring of patients. “This is an isolated incident. It was not expected. You can’t account for people who decide at a moment’s notice to do something.”

Nedelcove insisted that Avamere CNAs “definitely keep an eye on all of our residents all the time…. There are many residents in our facilities, and many of them have behavior issues.”

Avamere is conducting an internal investigation of the incident and, based on its conclusions, may alter procedures at the facility, Nedelcove added.

Seeking assistance

However, Rebecca has already contacted state oversight agencies and local media outlets.

She has also obtained assistance from the Northwest Chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA). However, HDSA cannot assist with placing Anne in a different facility because Anne, before symptoms worsened, had refused to give power of attorney to any of her relatives, preventing the sharing of medical information with an outside agency, Rebecca explained.

Rebecca posted pictures of her mother’s injury on the Avamere Facebook page, but the company removed them and then blocked her from posting additional images. She also placed a sign on the front door of the facility denouncing the strangling but doesn’t know if it remains.

Rebecca and other family members fought a hospital’s staffer's recommendation that Anne return to Avamere and will place her in a different facility, Myrtle Point Care Center.

Rebecca is also consulting private attorneys about potential legal action.

Denouncing neglect

“I’m really disgusted with this,” said Rebecca, a family advocate for a non-profit who tested negative for HD in 2006 and has identified some 50 descendants of an HD-stricken great grandmother who are at risk of inheriting the mutation. “I’ve told them I’m not going to be quiet about this.

Rebecca Ambrose (personal photo)

“I feel like I already have to be robbed of my mother. I feel a lot of times like I have to be the mother to my siblings and my child, and I have to take on a lot of what a grandparent would do, because my mom isn’t able to.

“I can still visit my mother. That’s being taken from me slowly. I didn’t expect my mom to be in a nursing home and have an incident that could cause her death. I always thought her disease process would cause her death. I understand that there are going to be falls out of the shower or the bed. But there’s no excuse for somebody to strangle my mother and for her not to be protected in facility that gets $80,000 a year to care for her.

“I’m livid and I’m horrified. My mom used to watch that movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I hate that movie. It’s one of the saddest movies I’ve watched in my life. That’s the state of nursing homes in America today.

“I just want to talk to whoever is going to listen to me. This can’t happen to people –when you entrust someone’s life! My mom is in a facility for her own protection, not to be neglected. I can assure you that nobody in my home would strangle my mother. I wish there were options that were not for profit. These people do it for profit.”

Care providers: a mixed bag

According to Rebecca, in early 2012 a man visiting Avamere to see his wife became angry at Anne and tried to punch her because an employee had accidentally taken his chair to Anne’s room.

Anne also suffers from bed sores, and she sometimes does not get her spoon-fed evening meal until late at night, Rebecca said. The CNAs bathe Anne, left incontinent by HD, just once a week, which understandably leaves a patient uncomfortable.

“It’s really a mixed bag with the care providers,” Rebecca said, referring to the CNAs, the main caregivers but also the lowest rung in the nursing home hierarchy. “Some love and care for her and take the time to feed her and meet her needs. Others fear her and skip over her as a patient or try and put it off on somebody else.”

Rebecca said that she has witnessed CNAs taking as long as two hours to respond to a call for assistance from patients. Nedelcove said CNAs usually respond within minutes.

Because the law prohibits a patient from being restrained, the facility cannot legally set the brakes of Anne’s wheelchair, to which she is bound by two straps.

As a result, Anne bumps into other residents in the dining room, knocks over food, and inadvertently hits people with her arms because of her chorea. To avoid these difficulties, Anne takes her meals in her room, Rebecca said.

Many of the CNAs have few or no qualifications, Rebecca continued.

Nursing homes hire “anybody off the street,” she said, adding, however, that several good facilities exist for HD people in various parts of the country.

“It’s an entry-level job,” Nedelcove admitted, noting that it’s “not a glamorous field.”

“It’s a calling rather than a profession,” she said.

However, she emphasized that all Avamere CNAs receive academic and clinical training and are state-certified.

“Most of them come to us with a great deal of experience,” she said.

A criticism of public agencies

In 2009, Anne was sent to the nursing home to recover from an operation needed after her HD symptoms had caused her to fall and injure her brain.

For a while, Anne had hospice care, as her weight had fallen to about 90 pounds. However, after her diet and weight improved, she no longer needed hospice.

Public agencies will not fund the 24-hour home care that would serve as an alternative to placing the patient in a nursing home, Rebecca explained.

“They will pay the nursing home over $6,000 a month to pay for somebody to give such little attention to my mother that she could get strangled, but they will not pay for better care at the same rate in my home,” she said.

Grossly misunderstanding HD

CNAs, Rebecca said, need better preparation in order to take “care of our elderly and the most vulnerable in society.”

Those vulnerable include thousands of HD patients, who, along with their families, face enormous difficulties in finding facilities that understand the disease and will take in someone with HD.

Rebecca recalled her family’s encounter with a past director of nursing at Avamere.

“They usually deal only in comatose patients, not the kind that can call down the hallway,” she said. The nursing director told Rebecca that “my mother needed to stop calling down the hallway, because HD is not a crutch and my mom is responsible for her own behavior.” The nursing director stated that if Anne couldn’t control her calls down the hallway, she could be evicted from the home.

“If you even say the word Huntington’s disease, nursing homes don’t want to talk with you,” Rebecca said, noting that most facilities focus on young people who are developmentally delayed or on the elderly, thus missing the middle years, the period where most HD people experience onset of symptoms.

Rebecca worked to educate the Avamere staff about HD. She arranged for the facility's previous director to participate in HDSA-sponsored caregiving webinars. He passed on information about HD to many of the staff. This “gave them some enlightenment,” Rebecca said.

However, because of recent high turnover at the home, including the removal of that previous director, few current employees have knowledge of HD, she said.

HDSA’s response and recommendations

Staffers at the HDSA national office in New York expressed deep concern about the incident and are closely monitoring the situation in Coos Bay. However, HDSA cannot comment on the specifics of the case in order not to violate patient privacy.

HDSA urges families to carefully research facilities before placing a loved one. It provides a number of publications, articles, and other materials regarding long-term care on its national website.

It also offers free in-service trainings for long-term care facilities.

As previously reported, many in the HD community have asked HDSA to provide funding for care. However, with an annual budget of only $8.5 million, the organization could not begin to provide such assistance. Families must rely on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs, as well as long-term health care insurance and other private insurances.

(In a future article: how segments of the HD community have strived to provide better care for patients).

Friday, May 24, 2013

Do we need to shock the world to strengthen the Huntington’s disease cause?

May is Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month. During this time, we in the HD community make a special effort to educate the public and our leaders about the untreatable, fatal genetic disorder that affects thousands of American families.

It’s also a time to reflect on the very meaning of awareness and how we build it.

In our media-saturated world, people often equate awareness with media exposure.

However, from my standpoint as an activist who has worked at all levels of the movement – from local volunteering to statewide stem-cell advocacy to global networking for the upcoming World Congress on Huntington’s Disease – I view the quest for media exposure as a necessary but hardly sufficient condition for awareness-building.

Disease and the public eye

Some recent news items highlight the importance of media exposure, its connection to awareness, and the potential drawbacks of over-emphasizing exposure.

The revelation by actress Angelina Jolie that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for a breast cancer gene led a sufferer of a lesser-known disease, dystonia, to publish a commentary on the difficulties of building support for research for her condition.

“If I told you what my issue was, you would probably shrug and reply that you’d never heard of it,” wrote Allison Hersh London, the chairwoman of the Young Leadership Council at the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia and Parkinson Foundation, in an article titled “Disease and the Public Eye” in the May 18 edition of the New York Times. “There aren’t any public service announcements about it or telethons. No Angelina Jolies to bravely inform the world. Just people like me, in supermarket checkout lines.

A movement disorder, dystonia causes involuntary muscle contractions resulting in twisting and repetitive movements.

“And this, I realize, is at the core of a problem that extends beyond me and my condition and that affects the way all of us respond to illnesses, some of which are the subject of public attention — and resources — and some of which are not.”

Sound familiar? It’s what the HD community said for decades. The only famous American to die of HD, Woody Guthrie, left us almost 50 years ago.

But now read what London says about HD:

“It’s odd to find yourself envying people who have diseases that get more attention than yours,” she wrote. “But I can’t help it. Dystonia is quite rare but, by some estimates, there are more people who have it than have Huntington’s disease, A.L.S. and muscular dystrophy combined. So the simple prevalence of an illness doesn’t explain why some illnesses are better known and better studied than others.”

Although recognizing that dystonia isn’t neurodegenerative or fatal, London uses the very same tactic of comparing disease numbers that some of us in the HD community – including myself – have used to justify more attention and research dollars for our disease.

What’s odd for me as an HD advocate is to see Huntington’s referred to in this manner. Despite HD’s occasional presence in the news and entertainment media over the past five decades, most people in the supermarket line still would say: “never heard of it.”

HD people do know about dystonia, however. In fact, before my mother was tested for HD in 1995, one doctor first thought she had that disorder. In addition, many HD patients do have dystonia as a symptom.

Citing a research study called the “Katie Couric Effect,” London affirms that a celebrity connection to a disease “can have a substantial impact on what the public does.”

London repeats what we’ve all heard: “Awareness generates funding, and funding generates research, which can lead to enormous life-changing differences for people who struggle with illnesses you probably haven’t heard of.”

Nevertheless, she concludes, “what’s most important is telling people about the disease” on an individual level.

‘I Wish My Son Had Cancer’

In England, Alex Smith, a father fighting to save his son Harrison from the fatal condition known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, took out an ad in London’s Evening Standard.

The ad photo (above) could just as easily represent a parent from an HD family, like the one I took at last year’s HDSA national convention of little Kayden Bujnowski, at risk for developing juvenile HD, her HD-afflicted mother Heather Lewis, and her father Jason Bujnowski (see below).

However, in the case of Harrison, the parents and the ad agency headlined their ad with the words “I Wish My Son Had Cancer.”

“Harrison, my 6 year old, has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy,” the ad states. “He’s one of 2,500 sufferers in the UK who’ll die from it, most before they’re twenty. Unlike cancer, there’s no cure and no treatment. And because you’ve never heard of it, very little funding either.”

"So far, the finished ad has received considerable support among other parents of children with Duchenne," journalist Meg Carter wrote about the ad, noting that people from far away as Brazil have donated a total running into the thousands of British pounds towards research for treatments. "However, some online comment on the charity's Facebook page has questioned the merit of, in effect, setting up different childhood illnesses in competition for donors' support."

As I wrote about Jolie’s preventive operation, people in the HD community would jump at the opportunity to reduce their level of risk for a disease that is 100% genetic and eventually strikes every carrier of the gene.

Indeed, we are desperate for treatments.

However, I cannot recall any instance in which a family or HD organization went to such extremes to generate publicity and funds.

Many forms of awareness-building

In seeking media exposure, we in the HD and other disease movements attribute to it an almost magical power to solve all of our problems and instantly bring the cure.

In the process, we can lose sight of the many other, equally important forms of awareness-building.

Practically everything we do in the fight against HD involves awareness-building: the doctor-patient relationship, informing people in our workplaces and community, and advocating in the public arena for such issues as stem cell research and passage of the Huntington’s Disease Parity Act.

Awareness-building requires relationship-building.

All of this is hard work. And it lacks the glamour of the fifteen minutes of TV fame or a 700-word newspaper op-ed piece.

Self-awareness first

The most important form of awareness-building takes place in our families and at the level of the individual affected by HD.

Because of the fearful symptoms and deep stigma associated with HD, so many of us hide in the terrible and lonely “Huntington’s closet.” The first step in awareness is to exit that closet and strive to build a family conversation about HD.

In our rapidly advancing biotechnological era, in which scientists have solved many of the mysteries of HD and opened the way to potential treatments, awareness-building also means confronting challenges such as genetic testing and grasping why it’s significant that we join research studies and clinical trials for defeating the disease.

It all begins with each of us. In building self-awareness with respect to HD, we can take the next big step of talking to a relative, joining a support group, visiting an HD clinic, and, when the moment is right, sharing our stories in the way that so many HD families do in the daily e-mail features of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HSDA) in May.

Deep pockets and working behind the scenes

It’s understandable that people with dystonia, Duchenne’s, or Huntington’s want to persuade or even shock the public into supporting their cause.

However, most of the process of fighting a disease takes place in physicians’ clinics and scientists’ labs. In America, a vast biomedical and pharmaceutical system discovers, produces, markets, and administers treatments. The politics and finances behind this system operate far from the public eye and, usually, media scrutiny.

In the fight against Huntington’s disease, the dogged determination and leadership of individuals such as Marjorie Guthrie, Woody’s widow and the founder of HDSA, and the Wexler family of the Hereditary Disease Foundation proved crucial in building both the public and self-awareness of the HD community and paving the way to key discoveries that have brought the hope of treatments.

Since 2003, however, the leadership in HD therapeutic research has come largely from the CHDI Foundation, Inc. Backed by a group of anonymous donors, CHDI spends tens of millions of dollars annually to fund drug-discovery projects. It also holds highly technical conferences to discuss the worldwide efforts to find treatments.

CHDI works without celebrities. While it has made waves in the world of science, it quietly goes about its work towards one goal – stopping Huntington’s disease – albeit HDSA shoulders the responsibility of advocacy, awareness, and services to HD families.

In the context of our biomedical system, CHDI illustrates a key point: having deep pockets and working behind the scenes can play as large a role – if not greater – in combatting a disease as public awareness.

HD scientists do find inspiration in the stories of HD patients.

However, they are also motivated by the deep curiosity characteristic of science researchers. HD provides a daunting challenge, one that has attracted some of the best scientific minds of our era. Additionally, it serves as a model for studying other genetic and neurological conditions, and the tools and techniques used in HD research can be applied to other scientific questions.

The momentum of science means that diseases even rarer than HD are benefitting from increased research and funding, as pointed out by Carl Zimmer in an article on fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a genetic disorder that disables people by causing them to grow extra bones, in the June 2013 issue of The Atlantic. HD affects an estimated 1 in 10,000, the bone disorder 1 in 2 million!

“The medical establishment itself has shifted its approach to rare diseases, figuring out ways to fund research despite the inherently limited audience,” Zimmer observed. “Although rare diseases are still among the worst diagnoses to receive, it would not be a stretch to say there’s never been a better time to have one.”

In discovering a drug for a disease like HD, many important parts of the story will emerge only years later. Some aspects may never reach the public arena.

What counts most is stopping the disease.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Memories of genetic testing: from my mom to Angelina Jolie

My family’s experiences with genetic testing for Huntington’ disease rarely stray from my daily thoughts.

The day after Christmas in 1995, I learned that my mother had tested positive for HD, a condition I had never heard of. The devastating news that she was afflicted with an untreatable, fatal disorder set me on a quest to learn all I could about it and help find a cure.

In June 1999, I tested for HD primarily because my wife and I wanted to start a family. Sadly, I was gene-positive. That information changed my life forever, altering my career path and thrusting me into a race against my own genetic clock – and for the cure.

In January 2000, our daughter tested negative in the womb – one of the happiest moments of our lives. Now, as she enters the teen years and becomes independent, I realize how our decision to test her 13 years ago has liberated her and us from ever having to worry about HD affecting her or her own potential children.

Lately, I’ve been reliving the powerful emotions of those three experiences and reflecting on how genetic testing has both provided important life-planning tools for HD families and forced them to make the kinds of difficult decisions I have made.

When I read in an HD Facebook group about someone who has tested negative, I at first become extremely jealous and even a bit angry. Then I feel relief for that individual and his or her family and send on a note of congratulations.

When I see news of a positive test, I feel the need to offer comfort and encouragement – and to redouble my advocacy efforts.

Don’t rush, sit with your emotions

An instructive lesson on the promise and perils of genetic testing came in the presentation by genetic counselor Lauren Dennis on “HD and Genetic Counseling” at the February 25 San Diego-area support group meeting.

“Basically we’re giving you a yes or no to a situation where there’s no cure,” Lauren said as the started her overview of the counseling and protocols involved in the testing process. “We’re really looking into that crystal ball to give you that information. Once you have that information, there’s no going back. We want to make sure that you’re in a good place to get that information and be able to cope with it.”

This approach stems in large part from the risk of suicide associated with HD testing, Lauren explained.

Among many key points, she emphasized that individuals should not rush into testing.

“We don’t want this to be an impulsive decision,” she said. “Sometimes people pick up that phone and call us: ‘Gosh, I just learned that Huntington’s disease was in my family last week.’”

Such people sometimes want to test immediately, she said.

That scenario starkly reminded me of my own wish to undergo testing right after learning of my mother’s test and diagnosis for HD.

However, as I learned then, and as Lauren explained during her presentation, counselors often ask people like me to first learn more about the disease and the need to plan regarding potential issues like insurance coverage, career, and family planning

“You really need to sit with the emotions and the idea of what that result would mean for you and how it will impact your life,” she continued, referring to the required one-month wait between submitting the DNA sample from a cheek swab and obtaining the results. “You need time to do that.”


As I listened to Lauren’s presentation and the subsequent Q&A session, I recalled the many other facets of my family’s experiences with testing.

Lauren explained that each individual or family seeking counseling is unique, so advice is offered on a “case-by-case basis.”

Ultimately, genetic testing is only the start of a family’s journey with HD, she concluded.

“That’s a huge limitation of genetic testing,” she said. “We can give you the yes or the no. We can’t tell you the when. We can’t tell you what age. We can kind of gauge from the family history – it might be similar…. We can’t tell you where, exactly what symptoms you’re going to have, or how severe they will be or how long your progression will be. That is a limitation. We don’t have that magic crystal ball.”

Lauren’s presentation is an excellent introduction to testing for any HD family interested in learning more about the process. You can watch it in its entirety in the video below.

New meaning

In definitively exiting the terrible and lonely “HD closet” over the past six months, the history of my family’s three HD tests has taken on new meaning.

As an HD advocate and historian, I’ve always had concern about the impact of genetic testing on society in general.

Now, after my employer, the University of San Diego, published an official website article on March 1 about my journey with HD, I’ve begun to implement my long-desired plan to more formally explore the history of science, technology, and medicine and link with university programs relevant to that area and HD research.

Recently I met with faculty members in charge of the university’s brand new neuroscience major. This is a hot field. Projected to take in 20 students its inaugural year, the program has already attracted some 100 students interested in the major.

In a couple years, after some careful planning and lots of research, I hope to teach a course on the history of the brain, which would be highly useful for neuroscience students. Also, as chair of my department, I am helping to lead the search for a new faculty member in the history of science, technology, and medicine who could potentially build additional bridges to neuroscience and many other campus programs situated in one of the world’s leading biotech hubs.

Medical ethics

Last month, the university posted an article about a new student-designed website, Genetics Generation, that aims to provide impartial information about genetics and engage the general public in conversations about genetics and ethics.

One of the site’s ethics case studies, titled “Huntington’s Disease and Personal Autonomy,” is like a page ripped out of my family’s story: a young, gene-positive man and his wife want to test their unborn child for the HD mutation.

However, unlike our story, this hypothetical couple encounters hesitation from their doctor, who counsels against obtaining information for a condition that may not affect the child until adulthood.

The case study ends with a reader’s poll: “if you were the doctor, what would you decide?”

Click here to read the entire case study and to register your vote.

I contacted the biology professor, Dr. Laura Rivard. The students produced the website as part of her course, Ethical Issues in Genetics. Our e-mail conversation led to an invitation for me to participate in a planning meeting for a new, multidisciplinary academic concentration in medical ethics.

As the healthcare and biotech industries continue to grow, the concentration would provide students with urgently needed perspective and reflection on matters such as the transformation of the healthcare system and issues in genetics.

I will join future planning sessions and offer my expertise on HD wherever it might be useful to students and fellow faculty.

Building these larger connections via my work as a professor will help me extend my HD advocacy to new spheres and highlight HD’s pioneering role in genetic testing and genetics research.

Walking in another’s genetic shoes

This past week the often terrible impact of genetic testing hit home once again as I heard the news that world-famous actress Angelina Jolie had revealed in The New York Times that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy because she had tested positive for BRCA1, which sharply increases the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

I imagined how difficult it must have been to have received the news of her test, but I also felt relieved to know that medicine has found a way to reduce the risks for Jolie and myriads of others threatened with the possibility of breast cancer.

“My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent,” Jolie, whose mother died of the cancer at the age of 56, wrote. “I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear that they will lose me to breast cancer.”

For some, the option of the double mastectomy might seem extreme, and, as commentators on Jolie’s situation noted, other approaches to combatting breast cancer do exist.

However, people should not judge Jolie. She made the best decision for her. Nobody can fully comprehend her decision until walking in her genetic shoes.

Likewise, nobody should judge HD families faced with the extremely difficult issues surrounding genetic testing and procreation.

Hoping for prevention

The minute I heard the report on Jolie, I thought of my own test – and the fact that for the HD community no preventive procedure or treatment exists.

Sometimes, HD-affected individuals, gene-positive people like me, and caregivers feel like jumping at a radical solution. We do so because of hopelessness.

My chances of HD onset are 100%. To reduce that by even half would be fantastic. To reduce it to 5 percent would be a miracle.

With the rest of the HD community, I’m rooting for the current and upcoming clinical trials aimed at testing approaches such as gene therapy, which could potentially halt, reverse, and maybe even prevent symptoms.

(May is HD Awareness Month! Learn more about the cause and donate by visiting the site of the Huntington's Disease Society of America.)