Bette F. has willed her brain to research at UCSD's Brain Observatory. She is 92 and she is part of a fortunate group of participants who embody the concept of successful aging. But she is much more than that.
I received a call from Bette just before Christmas in 2009. She had read a news article on the local newspaper about a very famous brain coming to town to join the digital fate of other brains from medical patients with localized neurological lesions. Scott LaFee’s article described The Brain Observatory's neuroimaging technologies in detail. I also had been candid about the value of brain donation in the preceding interview with Scott and outspoken about my intention to collect and preserve many more brains from ordinary individuals in the community. This appealed to Bette and I recall her initial remitting disposition when on the phone she offered her time, her wisdom, and ultimately her brain; naturally, only after she has 'graduated.’ According to Bette, death is a graduation to a higher state. She also believes that she will not have much use for her brain when she is dead, even though it is currently serving her well after almost a century on the job.
Bette kept busy all her life. In the 1930s she looked younger than her age, so she fooled the film studios in Hollywood, CA into giving her well-paid jobs as a child extra. Once on set, she told me, the director gave her wings and a monkey costume and told her to grab a little Terrier dog. Poor little Toto and poor Dorothy, but Bette was in Technicolor! During World War II, Bette was a true Rosie the riveter. In the 1950s she was a waitress, a cashier, a chef, and a restaurant manager. In 1961, the US and Cuba stopped being friends, but Bette met Bill, the love of her life. Bette is no-nonsense now and was no-nonsense then. She did not stick around when her husbands did not treat her well. Bill was the fifth, the last, and the right one. He took care of her; she left the restaurant business and raised her own children, as well as those she had with him. Now she lives on her own; she survived her 'wonderful Bill' and she survived the last of her beloved cats (the pet's ashes and picture are in a little wooden box on the bookshelf by the bed).
Bette's file at the lab has a sticker on it that reads "BF - Successful Aging". At 92, she lives independently, takes care of her meals, her finances, and her social life. She has many friends. As a research participant she is a sport. Every few months, rain or shine I cannot say, because she is smart and will not come out when it is windy and cloudy, but if the sun is out the day the MRI scans and cognitive tests are due, she punctually arrives at the lab and greets us with a smile and a "let's get on with it!" attitude. In just a few minutes she is in the scanner. I am at the console, away from the mechanical drum circle of the MRI machine. She is drenched in the rhythmic noise, but we can talk via the microphone.
Operator: "Bette, the next scan is going to last 9 minutes. Do you feel comfortable enough? You have been in there a while."
Bette: "Don't worry about me and get on with it. Gotta get as much as you can while I am still around."
Brain research is serious business for her as much as it is for me.
I do not like to think of the time when Bette will graduate. She is loved and respected in the lab and she knows it. She also knows that she is more than a research participant and more than a brain to me. She and I both hope that we will have plenty more time to get to know each other and to help each other do something meaningful with our lives. That, I believe, is the best thing one can hope to accomplish, at any age.