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Article - For his Jeannie With the Dark-Brown Hair

For his ‘Jeannie With the Dark-Brown Hair'

Gift from a Fremont Alzheimer's group – and a man who lost his wife to the disease – will benefit promising research at UNMC.

Posted: mar, sep 2, 2014

Marv Welstead met his girl – his "Jeannie With the Dark-Brown Hair," he called her – almost 80 years ago.

He was a junior at Fremont High. She was a beauty in the grade below. He saw her walking home for lunch one day and played keep away with her hat.

He could skate backwards. He worked at the Fremont Roller Rink as a skate boy, that's why.

One night at the rink, he saw her walk in there with a date, a farm boy who couldn't skate backwards. Or barely skate at all.

So Marv devised a plan to keep her away from her date. 

"I started calling for ‘couple's skate.' And then I was skating with her!"

Marv laughs as he tells this story. He's 93 years old now. He sits on a couch in his home in Fremont, surrounded by photos of his life and his late wife. 

"We both learned to waltz and two-step, things like that, on skates."

His Jeannie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2001. She died five years ago. Her photo in a yellow frame watches from the end table near the couch. She smiles.

He smiles back.

"I guess because we were so young when we started dating, you might say that we grew up together," he says. "The neighbor lady used to call us the ‘Gold Dust twins' because she said, ‘Where I saw one, then I saw the other one.'"

Marv, a retired banker, helped form the Fremont Area Alzheimer's Committee in his hometown that recently gave $25,000 to help fund clinical trials at UNMC. The gift will strengthen the University of Nebraska Medical Center's (UNMC) efforts to successfully recruit people to participate in national clinical trials that focus on new drug treatments to prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease or slow its progression.

UNMC is in the beginning stages of launching three new Alzheimer's disease clinical trials in Nebraska. UNMC will join sites from across the United States to complete these clinical trials. The next closest sites for these studies are Kansas City and Iowa City.

These trials are funded by the National Institutes of Health, Eli Lilly & Company and Toyama Chemical Company.

The Fremont Area Alzheimer's Committee's gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation supports the efforts of the research staff at UNMC to initiate these studies, including recruitment of participants.

The gift also supports UNMC's development of a registry of patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias as well as healthy aging individuals who are interested in research. This registry will be a vital resource to help recruit patients for future Alzheimer's disease clinical studies and studies focused on aging and brain health.

Daniel Murman, M.D., will lead the three clinical trials at UNMC and start the registry. He is a professor in the UNMC Department of Neurological Sciences and the director of the Memory Disorders & Behavioral Neurology Program.

Murman says the Fremont Area Alzheimer group's support "is critical to helping UNMC get these clinical trials off the ground and will facilitate future Alzheimer's disease research focused on finding effective disease modifying therapies."

"While the NIH and pharmaceutical companies are providing support for the national studies and for participants once they are involved," Murman says, "private funding, such as this gift, benefits us by funding start-up and recruitment activities. This enhances UNMC's ability to build and maintain the infrastructure needed for Alzheimer's disease research now and in the future."

Marv Welstead said he has tremendous confidence in Murman and his colleague Matthew Rizzo, M.D., the Frances and Edgar Reynolds Professor and Chair of the UNMC Department of Neurological Sciences.

"Through their efforts and by leveraging the support of the NIH and pharmaceutical companies through these studies, we think the unbelievable may be attained," Marv says. "I'm so pleased our group in Fremont can help."

When the committee members considered a gift to support the Alzheimer's research efforts of Murman and UNMC, Marv says, they felt these studies were "headed in the right direction."

"With the clinical trials and the medicines involved, we see great promise in the possibility of delaying the progress of Alzheimer's in an individual, if caught early enough," he says. "My hope is that someday an Alzheimer's patient will take medications to manage the disease just as a heart patient does today."

Dr. Murman praised the Fremont Area Alzheimer's Committee and the Fremont community for the extraordinary support in moving the promising research forward.

"Too many individuals suffer from the devastation of Alzheimer's," he says. "Our hope, through these efforts, is to lessen its impact on patients and families."

Happy photos of Marv's family decorate his home – photos of Marv and his Jeannie and two sons and grandkids and friends. Beautiful pieces of art hang on the walls.

His Jeannie was an artist of national note. She taught art at Midland University for years. She especially loved to paint flowers.

"Her flowers were so real," Marv says, "that you could almost feel like you could go up and smell them."

He sits beneath one of his favorite pieces, a large oil painting she did of a yellow peace rose.

He used to visit her three times a day at the nursing home in town. He brought her art supplies. He fed her. He helped her remember to swallow.

He devised a plan to keep her from falling down when she walked:

He would walk backwards down the hallway, in front of her. He'd hold her hands.

"The girls at the nursing home used to laugh about it," he says. "And they even bought me a little bell for a buzzer. They were even teasing about buying me a rearview mirror!"

He laughs.

"I'd walk her backwards. We did that until her legs gave out, of course, and she was in a wheelchair."

He'd hold her hands when they'd shake. He'd hold her hands and help her draw and paint, for as long as she still could.

He was holding her hands the night she died.

The final 52 months, he says, he recorded her situation each night – when she had comas, when she lost the use of her arms and legs and all the problems that go with Alzheimer's along the way.

After she died, he devoted himself to helping other people deal with the disease.

"I made up my mind I was going to do two things: Make the public aware of the disease; and secondly, to learn what it is, what causes it, and the potential possibilities for a cure."

This Saturday, Sept. 13, Marv will lead the annual Fremont Alzheimer's Walk at Midland University Event Center. They call it the "Step Toward Progress Walk." It supports Alzheimer's research and caregiver education. Marv is the honorary chairman.

He'll walk to help raise awareness of the disease. He'll walk in hopes that someday there will be a cure.

He'll walk for his Jeannie. 

Support for Alzheimer's research at UNMC is a priority of the Campaign for Nebraska, which ends Dec. 31. If you would like to help this effort, please consider giving online to the Alzheimer's Disease Clinical Research Fund or contact the foundation's Melonie Welsh at 800-432-3216.

For more information about participating in the Alzheimer's clinical trials at UNMC, please call 402-552-6233.

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