Janie and Don Bowles believe in a future when dementia will be a preventable, treatable, and curable disease. They have established a $1 million fellowship fund through Southwestern Medical Foundation that will help train new leaders and cultivate knowledge in dementia care and discovery at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute.
The couple created the Penny and Jesse Ralston Behavioral Neurology and Dementia Fellowship Fund in honor of Janie’s parents. After her mother, Penny, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Janie spent much time caring for her, which sparked a passion to change the course for others with the disease. She returned to school, earning a master’s degree and certification in speech-language pathology, and spent nearly a decade conducting patient assessments and providing individual family support for early Alzheimer’s intervention.
After their mother died, Janie led the charge with her brothers to have her brain harvested and autopsied at UT Southwestern.
“Janie felt it was really important,” said Don. “At that time, the only positive marker of Alzheimer’s was postmortem autopsy of the brain, and it took about 18 months to complete the research and pathology. As it turns out, her mother had markers for both Lewy body dementia and Alzheimer’s.”
During the final stages of Penny’s life, Janie began to recognize early signs of the disease in herself.
“Janie really understood the challenges that her patients faced and was able to recognize the disease early on. She said ‘I can tell something is different with me right now. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but I can feel it.’ She underwent neuropsychological evaluation and was asked the same questions that she had asked her own patients. She knew what was coming, and the fact that she had real personal engagement helped us through the early stages of the process,” said Don.
She was later diagnosed with Lewy body disease (LBD), the second most common type of progressive dementia. LBD causes a progressive decline in mental abilities and can lead to problems with thinking, movement, behavior, and mood.
Hope on the Horizon
The Bowles’ consider UT Southwestern to be a shining jewel in the community, and their partnership with the Foundation spans several decades. In 1972, they moved to Dallas when Don joined an insurance firm that had been in his family for two generations. Since then, the firm has merged several times and is now MHBT/MMA, one of the largest insurance brokerage and consulting firms in the U.S., where Don serves as Vice Chairman. His company is unique in that it has a full division called the “Mission Driven Team,” that offers services to the not-for-profit community. He has been the Foundation’s liaison for all its insurance needs for many years and has great trust in its mission.
“Janie and I feel that the dollars we are investing here are going to do nothing but grow, and as they do, they have the potential to lead to better treatments and new discoveries in the fight against dementia. For us, it is critically important to honor our loved ones from the previous generation through this gift. We realize that the research conducted now will not impact our generation, but it could impact our children and grandchildren. We are happy to join with the O’Donnell Brain Institute leadership and other community supporters to create a leading center to study and treat brain disease.”
Don stays engaged with O’Donnell Brain Institute faculty and is updated frequently on fellowship activities. He and Janie are confident that their gift will help attract the best and brightest physician scientists to UT Southwestern and expand the pool of highly educated leaders in Dallas in behavioral neurology and dementia. They are hopeful that someday soon, researchers will be able to identify markers well before dementia symptoms occur so that patients can begin treatment early in the disease process.
“Southwestern Medical Foundation has deep respect and admiration for Janie and Don Bowles, who truly care about changing the future for others with illnesses of the brain. Their dedication to this important work goes far beyond this generous gift. They have spent many years studying this illness, helping others in similar circumstances, and inspiring all who know them through their example and devotion.”
Kathleen M. Gibson, President and CEO, Southwestern Medical Foundation
Each Day is a Gift
Today Janie’s dementia has progressed, limiting her mobility, and she struggles to articulate her thoughts into words. She still recognizes the people she loves, and by having a full-time personal care assistant, she can remain at home to enjoy precious moments with Don, their children and grandchildren, and friends.
Don is grateful for 52 years of marriage and the wonderful life he and Janie share. He often thinks about hiking the Coast to Coast Walk across Northern England with Janie by his side. The walk is a challenging long-distance trail that stretches from the east and west coasts of England through mountains and hills, valleys and rivers, and heather moors and sea-cliffs. During their hike, the Bowles’ followed a popular guidebook that was created to break the miles into stages, each to be completed in a day.
“Our hike through England was an awesome experience. We hiked 190 miles in 14 days,” he said. “Walking together has always been an important part of our lives, but it is no longer possible. I see significant similarities between the Coast to Coast Walk and Janie’s journey through dementia. We never know what is around the corner, and sometimes it is not easy. But we are happy to travel that road together.”