ORANGEBURG, SC — Rather than lose hope, former federal Judge Karen Williams appreciates the positives that have come from the forced changes in her life since she was diagnosed last year with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
She’s spending more time with her family and finding the Williams & Williams law office in Orangeburg is a great place to do so. The firm’s roster includes her husband, Charles Williams, and sons Charlie and David. Their office has a family feel, right down to the friendly dogs and grandchildren who make frequent visits.
"I come to the office. Sometimes, I play with the dogs; sometimes, I play with the children," Karen Williams, 59, said in an interview at the law office last week.
She spends a lot of the time on the computer, checking on friends through Facebook. Recently, she’s been using the computer to ask for donations to Saturday’s Memory Walk in Columbia.
Son Charlie Williams made the walk a family priority this year, and his mother attacked it with her typical intensity. She blasted out 1,300 e-mail requests for pledges to the Alzheimer’s Association of South Carolina.
"I’m going to have to write 1,300 thank-you notes," she joked.
Karen Williams has a lot of friends and admirers. She taught school before earning her law degree from USC and beginning a climb that ended one step from the top of the judicial ladder. She was seated on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1992 at age 40, the first woman to serve as an appeals judge in that circuit.
When she made President George W. Bush’s short list for a Supreme Court opening in 2005, her major attributes in the eyes of Republican leaders were her conservative decisions and her relative youth. But when Karen Williams was diagnosed in July 2009 at age 57, she quickly resigned from the appeals court.
"Although no one knows how quickly the disease will progress, I want to leave the court while I still have my faculties and know that I have made all my decisions with a sound mind," she wrote in her resignation letter.
The progression of the disease has been gradual, and her mind is still sharp, but she knows her decision to step down immediately was the correct response. "Otherwise, all of your decisions would be questioned," she said last week.
Alzheimer’s, a progressive and deadly disease that kills brain cells, is the most common form of dementia. An estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, mostly people older than 65. Early-onset Alzheimer’s, which strikes younger people, accounts for about 5 percent of the total cases.
The Williams family appreciates the advocacy work of the Alzheimer’s Association, which backs research on the disease and provides aid to those diagnosed with the disease and their caregivers. Memory Walks - there are 13 in South Carolina - allow the group to raise awareness and money.
Ten days before the walk, the Williams’ Warriors team had rounded up $14,000 in pledges. That’s especially impressive considering the entire walk last year raised about $75,000, said Alzheimer’s Association spokesperson Ashton B. Houghton.
"I really applaud them for being vocal and for doing everything they do to raise awareness," Houghton said.
The Williams’ Warriors team participated in the walk for the first time last year, but it was a last-minute effort put together by family friend Barbara Barton. Most family members had prior commitments and couldn’t walk with the Warriors. This year, family members will make up about half of the Williams’ Warriors team, expected to number about two dozen, including Karen.
She is doing everything she can to slow the inevitable, even taking infusions as part of a study of the impact of gamma globulin on Alzheimer’s symptoms. She also exercises routinely - Pilates and yoga - and stays busy. She maintains her longtime 5 a.m. wakeup routine, volunteers at a church soup kitchen and spends plenty of weekends at the weddings of former law clerks.
"She’s always been the one to care for us when we were sick," Charlie Williams said. "To see her suffer from this just eats you up."
Karen Williams’ memory loss to this point has been minimal, but family members have noticed a decline in her motor skills, another common symptom.
Reference books "say usually somebody (with Alzheimer’s) is throwing clothes off and saying ugly things," she said. "I haven’t done that."
Karen and her family are making the most of these days.
"We love the present," David Williams said, "and we know the future is going to be tough."