CHICAGO – At age 80, retired Chicago physician and educator Dan Winship is getting a bittersweet last chance to teach about medicine — only this time he's the subject. In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, Winship is giving a young medical student a close-up look at a devastating illness affecting millions of patients worldwide.
The two are part of a "buddy" program pairing doctors-to-be with dementia patients, pioneered at Northwestern University and adopted at a handful of other medical schools.
Besides offering students a unique perspective on a disease they're likely to encounter during their careers, the programs give patients a sense of purpose and a chance to stay socially engaged before their illness eventually robs their minds.
Winship and his "buddy," first-year medical student Jared Worthington, are building a friendship — dining together, visiting museums, chatting about Winship's medical career and Worthington's plans for his own.
The programs help erase the stigma of Alzheimer's and are laudable for introducing students to medical opportunities related to aging and dementia, said Beth Kallmyer, an Alzheimer's Association vice president who oversees outreach services.
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia, a number that could triple by 2050, the group estimates.
Data presented at an Alzheimer's Association conference last year showed the programs are increasing medical students' knowledge of the disease beyond what they learn in the classroom.
About 75 percent of Northwestern students who participate become doctors in fields that deal with Alzheimer's patients, said program director Darby Morhardt.
For everyone, the diagnosis is a cruel blow. For Winship, it was nothing less.
"You can't remember anything," Winship said, sometimes faltering to find the right words. "You lose your ability ... to keep your wits about you."
Alzheimer's "wreaks havoc," he said. But Winship has grown to see it as a chance to meld his loves of medicine and teaching.
His career included stints as medical school dean at Chicago-based Loyola University; professorships at Rush Medical College and the University of Illinois in Chicago, and as an associate dean at the University of Missouri's medical school. He retired in 2010 from the American Medical Association.
Early last year, he got the dreaded diagnosis. Jean Schmidt Winship, 53, his wife of 10 years, says at first she thought his occasional forgetfulness and difficulty learning new computer programs were just signs of aging. But his symptoms gradually worsened.
Jean Winship scrambled to learn more about their options after the diagnosis and found the buddy program online.
"Everyone in the buddy program is very committed to understanding that people at this stage of any kind of dementia still need to live and enjoy life," she said. Alzheimer's "is not Dan, it's just a disease that he has. And so, that was huge for us ... realizing we have a lot of living to do here."
In the program, first-year students are matched for a school year with patients, based mostly on common interests.
Winship is an open, engaging man with twinkly dark eyes and a groomed salt-and-pepper beard. He was the first choice for many students who joined the program last fall, said Morhardt, the program founder and director. She had a hunch, though, that he and Jared Worthington would click.
Worthington, 25, from Ontario, Canada, is perhaps more reserved than his Texas-born mentor, but with obvious earnestness and empathy for what Winship is going through. Worthington's grandmother is in the later stages of Alzheimer's.
He said he hopes being a "buddy" will "inform how I interact with patients and hopefully treat them with more compassion and understanding."
"It's something scary and difficult but just because you have Alzheimer's doesn't mean that ... your life is over," Worthington said. "You can still contribute and give back and participate meaningfully."
During a recent visit to Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, he and Winship shared banter watching dolphins leaping in an indoor pool, and curiosity over the anatomy of colorful specimens in an ethereal jelly fish exhibit.
"I'm so fond of Jared because we talk together, we talk the same language. He is a very good student, he's learning and learning, learning and that means everything to me," Winship said.
Winship said he hopes the program will train a new generation of doctors to find new treatments "so we can do away with that stinking disease. "
For him, though, just hanging out with Jared "is the best part of all."