By Kim Walter
Doug Harrison admits he didn't know much about Alzheimer's, or any mental illness, until it impacted his entire family several years ago.
Now, he knows more about it than he ever wanted to, and has joined the fight to raise funds and awareness to combat the debilitating disease.
Harrison, 42, of Stephens City, has been the band director at John Handley High School in Winchester for 13 years. He has a wife, two kids, and leads a relatively healthy lifestyle running, biking and walking when he can.
Remaining physically active is important to him, as both his parents were always healthy and fit. Harrison's father in particular made sure to work out at the gym often, and enjoyed hiking and running.
"He was so in shape," Harrison said Wednesday afternoon. "I didn't think anything could hurt him."
However, 10 years ago, when Harrison's father - who also went by "Doug" - was just 53, he began suffering from younger-onset Alzheimer's. The disease seemed to take an even stronger toll on him, as he was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the same time.
Harrison's father had served in Vietnam, and didn't reveal a lot of what he'd seen and experienced until later on in life.
"I had no idea Dad went through so much," he said. "But those two things working together against him were ... it was terrible."
Harrison, then in his 30s and starting a family, watched as his father changed into someone he never knew. He said the transformation happened in phases - first, his dad struggled to remember things, but that progressed into his communication skills.
"He was confused. He couldn't express himself, couldn't form simple sentences," Harrison said. "Then his body started to go ... he couldn't run, so he biked, but then he couldn't bike so he walked. But then in the last couple years he even struggled to walk across a room or up stairs."
Harrison said up until the last few years of his life, his father received the care of Harrison's mother. His dad also lived in two facilities in Winchester, before ending up at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg. Harrison said the "VA" was the best place for his father, as the staff did all they could to help him, and treated him with "absolute respect and dignity at all times, no matter what."
The whole time, Harrison's family members dealt with the process in different ways. Harrison jumped to research Alzheimer's, but stopped when he started to realize what eventually would happen to his father.
One of Harrison's sisters is 15 years younger than him, so she graduated high school, moved into college, and passed other milestones with a different father than she expected. On the other hand, Harrison's son, currently 7-years-old, only knew his grandfather as "sick."
"My dad was still kind of there when Ian was born, but as he got older my dad got worse. When my dad would say strange things, or make goofy noises, Ian just thought it was hilarious," Harrison said, smiling. "I guess Ian dealt with everything the best out of all of us, because he just didn't know."
Harrison recalls the moments that hurt the most - when his father looked at him and asked what his parents were like, or when he visited his dad in the hospital, only to find him angry and threatening to kill him.
As he looked through photos of his dad, Harrison found one from Memorial Day last year. The father and son are pictured, with his dad sporting a Vietnam veteran cap, and Harrison dressed in a suit and tie.
"God, he looks awful there," Harrison said. "I know we're standing next to each other, but he didn't know I was his son ... just a familiar face, I guess."
His dad passed away in March, but a week before that Harrison came across the Alzheimer's Association website for "The Longest Day."
The fundraiser devotes one day - June 21 - to taking a stand against Alzheimer's. On Friday, people across the globe will complete approximately 16 hours of consecutive activities such as running, marathon games of bridge and hiking to advance awareness and raise money.
Funds will fuel the care, support and research efforts of the Alzheimer's Association. Harrison will spend his hours walking, running and biking 100 miles along the C&O Canal. He'll start in PawPaw, W.Va., bike to Sherpherdstown, W.Va.., run to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and complete his day with a hike to Maryland Heights, a mountain overlooking Harpers Ferry.
Hoping to reach the end destination just before sunset, Harrison and several friends and family members will gather for a ceremony in memory of his father.
Harrison said he felt the location was appropriate, as his father loved to explore the area, and actually had a picture taken years ago at the spot where his son will end the long day.
"I want to raise the funds for the research, because this disease is cruel," Harrison said. "And I couldn't think of a better way to honor Dad than exercising."
His goal is $1,600, and currently he's raised just under $1,000.
Harrison said awareness is a big deal to him now, especially since he had never thought he would be impacted by Alzheimer's at such a young age. He added that it's important for people to remember the caretakers -- like his mom.
"I'm doing this to honor her, too. I can't imagine watching a spouse crumble like that," he said. "I love my dad, and I'll always remember him like he was before Alzheimer's. But now it's time to do what I can to help all the people who are impacted, because it's a lot."
To donate to Harrison's team, go to www.alz.org/thelongestday and search his name.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org