After his mother suffered dementia, veterinary professor laced up his boots
GAINESVILLE — While on a short hiking trip at Baxter State Park in Maine in 1968, Art Donovan and his mother stopped in front of a brown, weathered marker for the Appalachian Trail. The 2,190-mile-long path spans 14 states in the Eastern United States.
“You know, I think I’d like to hike that one day,” Donovan remembers his mother, Theresa Donovan, saying.
Fifty years later, Donovan, a retired University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine professor, put his boots on the ground in Georgia to do just that to raise awareness and money for Alzheimer's research. Theresa Donovan, 91, has had dementia for the past 11 years.
“It kind of shocked me,” Donovan said. He did not know many people with dementia prior to his mother’s experience.
Theresa Donovan, who lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, near Donovan’s hometown, does not have an official Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but he suspects her illness is either that or something closely related.
On Feb. 28, Art Donovan put on his 40-pound backpack full of equipment and food and started on the trail at its entry point near Springer Mountain in Georgia.
In the past month, he has experienced breezy and sunny days, cold nights with temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and was snowed in near the Great Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, earlier this week.
The best part of the journey, he said, are the views.
“You’re looking around at where you’re stepping, and then you look up and say ‘Oh my goodness,'” he said. “It’s all so beautiful.”
When Donovan told his wife, Patti Gordon, about his plan to hike the trail following his retirement, she wasn’t sure how serious his goal would be.
“Really? That’s crazy,” she said.
But over the two-year period he spent researching, she realized he would be capable of such a feat.
“I feel good that he is going to be safe because he’s smart about it,” said Gordon, a veterinarian at All Cats Health Care Clinic.
Donovan studied other hikers’ experiences, watching videos on YouTube and reading articles about what gear to pack and what kind of food to eat.
To simulate climbing at an elevation in flat Florida, he carried 30 pounds of weight as he "hiked" Ben Hill Griffin stadium.
“Doing it for eight to 10 hours a day is a whole different universe,” he said. “It’s a learning process.”
So far he has had no major difficulties in getting supplies such as food, which Gordon sends to him at nearby post offices every few days. In this week’s package, he is expecting his lighter hiking shoes, since he said the ones he is wearing now feel too heavy.
When it comes to his mother’s dementia, Donovan said the hardest part of the disease is seeing the change in her personality: When Donovan and Gordon visited her with their six children, she did not recognize them.
“She said, ‘What are all these people doing in my house?’” Donovan said. “That was a wake-up call for (my children).”
In 2016, Theresa Donovan had a bad fall, breaking her leg.
“It was kind of a tragedy, but it also led to some good,” Donovan said.
She agreed to move to a nursing home, where she now feels more comfortable. Her two children who still live in Canada visit her daily, while Donovan said he tries to visit her at least every six months.
Gordon said she is impressed by her husband’s commitment to the cause.
“He always takes care of others before he takes care of himself,” she said.
His siblings put a map of the trail up in his mother’s room and point out where he is every day. But when they showed her a picture of him standing in the snow, surrounded by firs, maples and a mountainous landscape, she couldn’t remember why Donovan was out there.
“Now why the hell would he do something stupid like that?” she said.
Donovan said he’s glad she still has her sense of humor.
When he finishes the trail at Mount Katahdin in Maine, he said, he hopes to be able to walk the remaining 60 miles to Fredericton to reunite with her.
He has an 840-song playlist he listens to while on the trail. The song that stands out to him as he hikes eight to 15 miles daily is Travis Tritt’s “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive.”
“I play that almost every day,” he said.
So far, Donovan has raised about $1,500 for the Alzheimer’s Association by telling others about his hike. He said his goal is for people to donate a penny a mile, or $21.90 total per donor. Anyone who wishes to donate for his walk to end Alzheimer’s can do so online.
“This is a disease that affects everyone,” he said. “It’s a scary thought, and we have to do something about it.”