VM Book Club Review: Sum It Up by Pat Summitt

In her book "Sum It Up", Pat Summitt gives an open and honest look at her early onset Alzheimer's, while intermittently discussing her career memories, both good and bad, leading up to and during her coaching of the "Lady Vols".

Early in the book, she describes how "a memoir is not a documentary. We think we keep an accurate record of ourselves in the bean-counting tablets of our minds,but we don't. None of us sees or remembers everything about one's life; memories are unreliable - they smudge and fade, like disappearing footprints in the sand. We're too busy standing in the middle of it to remember everything perfectly." It's a good reminder to all of us, that even without dementia, our memory is not "perfect".

She describes life with Alzheimer's like footprints in the sand being "washed away by the surf". Her earlier memory lapses had her asking "people to remind me of the same things over and over". She would have to ask "three times in the space of an hour, 'What time is my meeting again?'" and still be late. Her close friends noticed she "would forget the most important conversations". Although she said she typically lost car keys and her cell phone, she now "lost them three times a day".

At first she thought her memory loss was caused by "a reaction to medication" since she was on a "handful of prescriptions for various ailments." She also found it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, because "in bed there were no challenges. No worrisome situations that required a decision. No conversations in which I feared I might make a telltale slip-up." This led her to become "increasingly hesitant and withdrawn, to the point that" she began avoiding meeting with "players one-on-one."

Alzheimer's began to affect her coaching as well. "I grew confused in the heat of a game" and there were "strange empty moments when I couldn't' call up the right term." After spending four decades teaching herself to "see ten players at once, the whole ninety-four feet of hardwood and all the movement on it" she was starting to see "an indistinguishable blur, flashes and bursts."

She describes her "short-term factual memory" like "water", "events are a brief disturbance on the surface and then it closes back up again, as if nothing ever touched it." She notes however that her long-term memory "remains strong", which she likens to the fact that the events were recorded "when my mind was unaffected". She feels that her emotional memory is intact, "perhaps because feelings are recorded and stored in a different place than facts." 
Her doctor described Alzheimer's as "hugely unpredictable". In some people it moved quickly but others were "able to stay active and engaged for many years." Pat decided to fight and stay engaged in coaching as long as possible. "When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want to do in life. It gives you vision."

When she decided to step aside as head coach to become "head coach emeritus", she went public with her Alzheimer's diagnosis. Her hope was that the "audience might see the disease in a new light: as something that could be managed, lived with in a purposeful way. The great stigma of it was in thinking it robbed us of all dignity and value. Sometimes, I thought we strip people of their capacities faster than the disease itself does."

As Pat describes it, "People with mild to moderate stages of dementia have far more abilities than incapacities...just because certain circuits of memory or swiftness of synapses may fail, thought and awareness and consciousness do not."

Also interesting were Pat's descriptions of her career as head coach, her coaching style and relationships with the players. She addressed several tips and great advice for building and maintaining hardworking, award-winning teams. 

Do you know someone with early onset Alzheimer's? What has it taught you?
If you were to be diagnosed with early onset dementia, would you continue working? Why/why not?