Aging, Memories, and One Pioneering Physician

How one man coped with his declining memory.

Posted Sep 18, 2018

The fun part about writing a book is NOT the writing. It’s the people you meet along the way. While digging into the history of growth hormone, I got to know Dr. Robert Blizzard well.

            He told me his stories about treating children with endocrine disorders back in the middle years of the twentieth century when hormones could not be measured.  Blizzard kept in touch with many of his former pediatric patients, decades after they aged out of his practice.

            He told me about the early days when growth hormone was first isolated — and the excitement about its use in children with deficits. He told me about his successes and admitted his failures. He told me about his audacious experiments, including one in 1982 when he and a group of colleagues took growth hormone to test the claims that it was a youth enhancer. For more than two years, they monitored key metabolites and had bone scans. “I was on it for the full two-and-a-half years, the other fellas for a year and a half,” Blizzard told me. “I never put this into the press, but I learned what I wanted to learn, which is that it didn’t make your hair turn from gray to black and the girls didn’t whistle at you.”

            Then one afternoon a few years ago, while I was in New York City's Central Park with my dog, I got a call from Dr. Blizzard. After a few years of bombarding him with questions and picking his brain about details of hormone history, he had a question for me. He told me that he was asked to give a lecture to a medical group that focused on his life, his research, his years as a pediatrician stretching to the 1940s. It was going to be, he told me, his last public speaking event. The problem was that he was having memory issues and couldn’t remember a lot of what he had done. (He was about 90 years old at the time.) Could I read him back my notes? Could I dictate his stories back to him?
            It was sad and strange. Here I was telling this esteemed physician about his life — and hoping that I got all the details accurately because his speech would appear to be, well, stories right from the person who was there. Sure he had his published papers, but he wanted the chit-chat — the fun stories — that he had shared with me.

            We spoke for about an hour or so. The rest of the afternoon I was in a fog. My father also suffered from dementia but he was too proud to admit his memory lapses to anyone until it was too obvious and he closed himself off from friends and colleagues.

            Dr. Blizzard died this summer at the age of 94. The memory that sticks with me is not just that one phone call but the last time I visited him at his home near the University of Virginia. I had my reporter’s notebook in hand with a list of questions and a stack of scientific articles to discuss. But he wanted to start our day with a walk around the small pond near his home. He wanted us to take in the scenery, slow down, to enjoy nature a bit. I have a hunch his warmth with me was similar to the way he's bonded with his patients. Then we wandered back to his home, sat at a table in his backyard and got to work.

References

Randi Hutter Epstein, "Robert Blizzard, Who Gave Children Hormones to Grow, Dies at 94," New York Times, July 23, 2018