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Changing the Wind

Below is the speech given by James Smith at the 2008 Alzheimer’s Public Policy Forum Candlelight Vigil earlier this week. His words–moving, clear, and true–blew me away. Like a powerful wind. Changing.

2008 Alzheimer’s Public Policy Forum – Candlelight Vigil Washington, D.C. Remarks by James W Smith

“Thank you.

It is an incredible honor to be asked to speak to you tonight. And it is especially fitting that we are here at the Capitol reflecting pool, at a time when reflecting inside ourselves – as individuals, as a nation, and as a society – has never been more important.

People have said that in Washington, DC it is easy to tell who our elected officials are. They are the ones standing on the street corner with their moistened fingers held in the air – testing to see which way the wind is blowing. And in order to drive real change here – it does no good to simply replace them with others who will do the same. The way to get real, meaningful change is to change the wind. I want to talk to you tonight about what brings me here – and what brings us together.

And I am here to ask for your help in changing the wind.

We must help those here in Washington, and those representing us at home feel the power of the changing wind, in order to save our nation and our society from the storm that is already bearing down upon is. It is a storm that will tear us apart as a people and a nation if we do not turn to face it, change our priorities and get in front of it now.

That storm is Alzheimer’s Disease.

And so, why am I here tonight? For several reasons. I am here because a little over two years ago I sat frozen in a chair across from my neurologist at the Mayo Clinic as he said to me, “You have probable Alzheimer’s Disease.” Five words that changed my life, and the lives of those I love and care for forever.

Up until that day, Alzheimer’s was not even on my radar screen. I was a busy IT Director for American Express, with twin daughters just entering college. My wife Juanita and I were entering the second half of what we liked to call “our charmed little life”. We were looking forward to so many things as a couple, as a family – and it all shattered in an instant with just five little words – “You have probable Alzheimer’s Disease.”

And here’s the deal. That moment is repeated every 71 seconds in America today. Once every 71 seconds, another person develops Alzheimer’s Disease. And that person, and their family must walk out of the Dr.’s office with shattered hearts and lives and dreams and struggle to deal with those five little words and all that they imply. And the pace is accelerating. It is a tragedy in the making. Today there are over 5.2 million people in America diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. And by 2050, that number will explode to over 16 million in America, and over 100 million worldwide.

Think about that for a moment…

Sixteen million. Look around you right now. There are less than a thousand people here tonight. If you took those 16 million people – each of whom have been diagnosed with this devastating, incurable, degenerative brain disease – and lined them up – shoulder to shoulder along the highway – that line would stretch from New York City to Los Angeles, and then turn up the coast for over another 1000 miles.

And if you drove along that highway lined with Alzheimer’s patients – you would pass over 3,000 in the first mile. And – standing behind each of those patients – would be 32 million caregivers, and their families, and communities.

And that scenario is EXACTLY what we face if we do not refocus our national priorities and get in front of Alzheimer’s now.

I am here tonight because I cannot let that happen. WE can’t let that happen. WE cannot let our elected officials stand by and do nothing and allow Alzheimer’s Disease to overwhelm us. The next time you are in front of your congressman or senator, ask them this question: “If you knew – without a shadow of a doubt -that someone was bringing to our shores a biological weapon of mass destruction SO POWERFUL that it would kill 16 million American citizens in a crippling, relentless and ruthlessly cruel manner – what would you be willing to do to stop that from happening?”

Not just as an elected leader – but as a human being? Because that biological weapon of mass destruction is already here. That biological weapon of mass destruction is Alzheimer’s. It has already infected over 5 million American citizens – and is attacking a new person every 71 seconds.

Ask your leaders: “What ARE you willing to do to stop this NOW – before it explodes into a tsunami?” Ask yourselves – what am I willing to do?

The sad truth is that if Alzheimer’s was smallpox, we would have emergency measures, quarantines, and troops in the streets. Our elected officials would be all over themselves making speeches and passing the necessary emergency directives, and policies and laws and providing whatever funding was necessary to quell the outbreak. We would mount a full-court press as a nation and WE. WOULD. STOP IT. Where are our leaders tonight? Where is the outcry? Where are the troops? Where are the emergency measures? And most importantly – where is the funding?

We know how to stop Alzheimer’s – all we need is the will and the focus and the funding. We are SO CLOSE. If we as a nation had dedicated 1/10th – one 100th of the amount we have spent on the war in Iraq towards Alzheimer’s research – Alzheimer’s would be CURED. And we would have saved over 10 million lives and trillions of dollars. There is still time. But not much. Nobody else will make this go away for us. We are all – every one of us -responsible for stopping Alzheimer’s. It is up to us. If not us, then who -our children?

And if we do nothing – if we simply stand by and watch and let this tragedy play out – we are sentencing 16 million Americans to an early, tragic and unnecessary fate. Make no mistake – if we don’t stop it Alzheimer’s Disease will impact every single person in America in one way or another.

That doesn’t have to happen. And I committed to helping make sure it doesn’t.

And finally, this brings me to the most important reason I am here tonight. And I suspect it is the same reason many of you are here as well. It is the simplest thing in the world – and yet the most powerful. As I mentioned in the beginning, I have two daughters. They are amazing, bright and beautiful girls entering their senior year at Northwestern University this year. They are the light of my life – and I am more proud of them than any words can ever express. Although I understand that the reality is that I may not be alive or aware enough to benefit from the cure that I know in my heart is coming – it will come. It simply has to. The price of failure is too high.

And when it does – when that day comes that we no longer have to fear the terrible scourge of Alzheimer’s – I want my daughters to know that I what I did here tonight – and what I did here this week – I did for them.

Thank you.”

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