Pat Summitt's eponymous foundation will raise awareness and much-needed funds to help battle the coach's toughest opponent yet
From Lou Gehrig through Magic Johnson to Lance Armstrong, sports figures have helped to raise awareness and funds by lending their names and faces to the fight against disease. When she made public her battle with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, in August, Pat Summitt signaled her wish to play that same role.
She was on the treadmill, following doctors' advice that exercise is the single best hedge against deteriorating mental health, when a segment about former President Ronald Reagan's bout with Alzheimer's came on TV. That program helped prompt her to go public. "The path she's chosen to go down can touch more lives than you can imagine," says Billie Moore, Summitt's coach with the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. "She's always accepted a challenge. She may be the biggest underdog, but I wouldn't bet against her."
A group led by Danielle Donehew, a former Lady Vols director of basketball operations who's now an associate commissioner of the Big East, as well as Summitt's son, Tyler, has helped her establish the Pat Summitt Foundation, which announced inaugural grants of $75,000 each to two Alzheimer's organizations at halftime of the Lady Vols' game against Baylor on Nov. 27. That day purple WE BACK PAT T-shirts and Tennessee-orange ribbons could be seen all over Thompson-Boling Arena, including on the Bears' bench. "She gets up every morning thinking about basketball," says ESPN analyst Kara Lawson, who honored her former coach by raising $17,000 for Alzheimer's research in a 5K race in Manhattan in November. "I don't see how it's a bad thing for her to be around [the game]. It's what drives her, what she's known for 40 years."
Some 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, including 3.4 million women. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Early-onset victims generally have eight to 10 years from diagnosis to death (although individual cases can vary widely). The number of Alzheimer's sufferers is expected to reach 13.2 million by 2050, which means trillions of dollars in health-care costs. And though the disease tends to be inherited, the stigma keeps family members from talking frankly about it. Only after her diagnosis did Summitt discover that four ancestors on her father's side, including her grandmother, had been sufferers.
"Early diagnosis is so important," says Dr. John Dougherty, who runs the Memory Clinic at the University of Tennessee's Cole Neuroscience Center. "The goal is prevention through delay. If we can delay symptoms by five years with medication and exercise, we can reduce the number of sufferers by six- to eight million—[about] the population of metropolitan Atlanta."