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Search Spring 2014

A Surprise Boost for Alzheimer's Research

Date: June 13, 2014

Exemplary patient-centered care inspires research gift.

Esther Oh
A grateful patient’s husband rewarded Esther Oh for her thoughtful evaluation of his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease. That gift, says Oh, will help accelerate her research.

When Shirley Roberts was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, her primary care physician in Norfolk, Va., reached out to experts at Johns Hopkins and two other leading academic medical centers. One sent a nice note saying that they weren’t doing research in the area, and one didn’t respond. “But Johns Hopkins responded that they were working diligently to deal with an eventual cure for Alzheimer’s disease,” recalls Roberts’ husband, Dick.

“We’re always happy to see anyone, regardless if they wish to have an initial evaluation of their cognitive problems, or they already have a diagnosis and want a second opinion,” says geriatrician Esther Oh, an associate director of the Johns Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center.

The Robertses came to Oh for an appointment in the spring of 2012. Although they were interested in clinical trials, there was nothing appropriate for Shirley Roberts at the time. Oh offered to work with their primary care physician to manage her care and to keep them apprised of any changes.

Later, during a follow-up phone call, Dick Roberts surprised Oh with the news that he wanted to donate a large gift toward her Alzheimer’s disease research. “I wanted to make sure he had thought through this carefully and gotten to know us better,” Oh says. Conversations with the development office proceeded, and when the Robertses returned last October to deliver a check, they met with Oh and colleagues Constantine Lyketsos and David Hellmann.

Dick Roberts, 79, a retired media executive who graduated from the Naval Academy and Harvard Business School, says he was impressed both by their knowledge of the disease and by Hellmann’s assertion that in order for a doctor-patient relationship to work well, the doctor has to get to know the patient as a person. He says when he originally had asked Oh if a cure would be found in 10 years, she said maybe. “Then I asked if it could it be pulled back if there were more money available for research, and she said it was possible,” he says. “That was the seed that got nourished.”

He says while he remains very hopeful and continues to pursue the most aggressive treatment options for Shirley, 78, his wife of 56 years, he knows his gift may more likely benefit others down the road: “We won’t know who they are, but we hope we will have improved the lives of people with Alzheimer’s disease through new, promising drugs.”