Rare illness claims realtor 

And raises rumor of mad cow disease.

THE BALL FAMILY: Jerry Ball and her daughter Michele.
  • THE BALL FAMILY: Jerry Ball and her daughter Michele.

Jerry Oberle Ball wants to set the record straight. Her husband, Truman Ball, a Little Rock realtor who died Dec. 11, did not succumb to mad cow disease.

She and her daughter, Michele James, said in an interview last week that they were offended by the rumors, which friends reported to them. “I felt like people were insensitive,” Michele said. “When I think of ‘mad cow’ I think of a crazy person.”

Ball, a native of East End who grew up in Sheridan and owned Truman Ball and Associates, was not crazy. He was a “workaholic,” Jerry Ball said, regularly putting in 14-hour days. He was a born-again Christian. He watched his kids play sports and played golf with his son-in-law. He was, his daughter said, the kind of father who took her anywhere she wanted to go every Valentine’s Day to shop — day trips to Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis, flying in in the morning and out at night.

When Ball, 59, was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in November by doctors at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., he joined a rare group: Only one in a million people worldwide are diagnosed with the illness each year.

The rumors the Balls have been told of spring from the fact that CJD destroys the brain with bent proteins called prions, which also cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow. BSE in people — first detected in the United Kingdom in 1986 — is in fact called variant CJD. The prions attack other proteins, riddling brain tissue with tiny holes.

Though doctors believe CJD has a long incubation period, once symptoms appear, death is near.

That’s how it was for Truman Ball. In September, his daughter, Michele, who works at Truman Ball and Associates, said her once sharp-minded dad, who kept staff “on our toes,” began to forget appointments — completely out of character.

Jerry Ball began to notice changes in his driving. He became extremely cautious, and began to ask where to turn when driving what should have been familiar routes. Though he’d always insisted on driving, in October he gave up the wheel to his daughter as they returned from a trip to Chicago.

He said and did odd things. Jerry once found him just staring at the things he picked up every day on his way out the door — keys, appointment book, etc. — as if wondering what they were for. He played his last game of golf with his son-in-law, Jason James, and told him, “I know things aren’t right with me; hope I don’t hit it off the course.” (His score of 39 on the final nine holes is something of a miracle; Jason said it was his best nine ever.)

Jerry said she was hesitant to raise the issue with her husband. But when he had to ask her directions to his daughter’s house and then asked who they were driving to see, it gave her the opening she needed to get him to the doctor, she said.

Truman Ball was a diabetic who’d just lost 50 pounds, and his internist ran blood tests to see if his blood sugar could account for his forgetfulness. It was normal. Ball then went to the Memory Center at St. Vincent Health System, where he did well on a test that required him to count backwards and perform other mental tasks.

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) on his brain was normal. But the results of a spinal tap and an electroencephalograph weren’t quite right, and three weeks after his first visit, he performed poorly on his second memory test. Forgot how long he’d been married. Forgot that his daughter had gotten married. “His short-term memory was gone,” Michele said.

Friends, Jerry said, urged her to take Ball to Mayo, which she did in November.

Getting him there was difficult; Ball, who was now having trouble walking, had trouble negotiating the airport. Jerry and Michele asked him to trust them and led him through. It was so trying they chartered a plane when they returned home.

At Mayo, doctors ran more tests and asked: Had he gone out of the country recently? No. Had he eaten deer or elk meat? (Some populations have wasting disease, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.) He had not. His EEG recorded increasingly slower brain waves.

During an interview with the doctor, Ball turned to look behind him. “My friends are here,” he told the doctor.

“He told us he was seeing angels,” Jerry Ball said. He kept seeing them, above and around him. “How many, Daddy?” Michele once asked. Eight, he said.

As rare as CJD is, the doctors at Mayo told the Balls they see a couple of cases a month, Jerry said. Ball fit the CJD age group, which is in the 50s and 60s. (Variant CJD occurs in younger people.) Doctors conjecture that he had “sporadic” CJD, in which the cause is unknown. Only 15 percent of CJD cases are familial, according to the CJD Foundation. A few cases cite people who’d undergone medical procedures.

When BSE disease was first identified in cattle in the United Kingdom, the country exterminated its entire herd. (More than half its dairy cows were infected.) It’s believed the cattle became ill from eating feed that included sheep infected with scrapie — also a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy disease — and other infected cattle. When people in their 20s began to die, the government said it was likely due to the ingestion of tainted beef, and the term variant CJD came into being.

There are differences between CJD and variant CJD besides age: The prions have slightly different amino acid structure, and CJD is also quicker to kill its patients.

Mayo doctors, because of odd results on a blood test, sent Ball a week after he returned from Mayo to the hospital for high-dose steroid treatment for Hashimoto’s Disease, a curable thyroid disorder. But Ball didn’t respond.

A couple of weeks after Ball’s visit to Mayo, he was in hospice care, where he lived another couple of weeks, surrounded by family. One day, while Jerry was putting ointment on her husband’s lips, her sister spoke. “He’s gone.”

The family chose not to have an autopsy because, Jerry said, it would have required cremation of the body. But she’s confident of the diagnosis.

Jerry said she wanted not only to clear the air about the cause of her husband’s death, but to make people more aware of the illness. She believes that it is more prevalent than the numbers suggest. “My wish is that people could know about the symptoms … so they won’t have to go to 100 different doctors” to get a diagnosis.


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