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Doctor Helps Families Live with Dementia

When radiation oncologist Ed Shaw, MD, MA, counsels patients and families who have received a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, his advice is not theoretical; he speaks from personal experience. 

"In 2008, we were told that my wife, Rebecca, had mild cognitive impairment, which had a very high chance of developing into Alzheimer's disease, a progressive, untreatable, incurable and ultimately fatal disease that would take her life at a young age," Shaw said. "We were absolutely devastated."

Shattered Dreams

At the time, Shaw had been professor and chair of Radiation Oncology at Wake Forest School of Medicine for 13 years. He had practiced medicine for 21 years and was an internationally recognized brain tumor specialist. Rebecca, then 54, was a master's-trained speech pathologist. They had been married for 28 years and had three daughters, 18, 20 and 22-the oldest had just married. 

"You envision this life of growing old together," said Shaw. "All of that seemed to go up in smoke. There was really nobody that we could turn to for support, to help us cope. There were great places to go for a diagnosis, but the collateral damage of the diagnosis is what caused the struggle for our family. I didn't want others to face this alone. That's what led to my career change."

Inspired by a Cure

It was not the first time a personal medical crisis influenced Shaw's career. At age 12, the Chicago native's mother battled cancer. She was seriously ill for months, but radiation therapy and surgery cured her, and she lived to be 80 years old. 

"I wound up being a caregiver for her during that experience," Shaw said. "That's really what piqued my interest in medicine and particularly oncology." 

Shaw earned his medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1983. He completed his internship and residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he served on its faculty until 1995, when he joined the Medical Center as chair of Radiation Oncology.

A New Journey

After his wife's diagnosis, Shaw stepped down as department chair. He reduced his clinical practice to part-time and pursued a master's degree in counseling at Wake Forest University between 2008 and 2010. After earning his degree, he received joint faculty appointments with the Department of Counseling on the Reynolda campus and the Section on Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at the Medical Center. The goal he had set for his career change was in sight. 

Shaw approached Jeff Williamson, MD, MHS, professor of Internal Medicine and section head for Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, about starting a counseling center for individuals, couples and families diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease or other dementias in conjunction with the Memory Assessment Clinic (MAC) at the Sticht Center on Aging. Williamson agreed and found initial funding for three years. The MAC Counseling Center opened in October 2011, offering a range of free support services for patients and their caregivers. 

"I'm particularly passionate about doing the family work because of the way the diagnosis impacted my family," Shaw said. "Families cope by understanding the disease through education and learning new skills to help reduce the stress associated with caregiving. Seeing families help themselves and others on the same journey has been the most rewarding aspect of my career change."


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Last Updated: 05-02-2016
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