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5 minute read

Thinking for Tomorrow

Attendees learn about Ochsner Neuroscience Institute’s mission at the inaugural Colors of the Mind fundraiser.

Paul and Donna Flower hope to ensure a better future for

cognitively impaired patients and caregivers.

By Jordan LaHaye

In September 2019, Woodward Design + Build’s CEO, Paul Flower, stood onstage at the Fillmore New Orleans and told a story about his father’s decline by Alzheimer’s. “[I remember] the time he couldn’t remember my name when I came to visit. So he said, ‘You are the one who builds things.’… [Another time], Dad started talking, and though I could not understand, I listened as he went on for several minutes, then stopped and started laughing. He had told me a joke, so I thought of one of the many funny stories we had shared and laughed, too. And then, when he could not remember anything about me, but there was light and reaction in his eyes. Finally, no reaction, and hospice.”

Alongside his wife, Donna, Paul was serving as the presenting sponsor for the Ochsner Neuroscience Institute’s inaugural Colors of the Mind fundraising event. Since the Institute’s beginnings, the Flowers have been some of the most fervent supporters of Ochsner’s vision for a center of excellence in Neuroscience, fueled by their own 10-year journey through his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s.

That battle began 25 years ago, when resources — especially in the New Orleans area — were extremely limited. General understanding of the disease wasn’t widespread, and most assisted living facilities had no way to appropriately care for the memory impaired.

“I think of what we went through with my father, and the great difficulties we had until we found one of the few people at the time who knew anything about memory impairment, a psychiatrist whose practice specialized in dementia,” said Paul. “We were one of the lucky ones.”

Having access to focused, knowledgeable memory care made all the difference for the Flowers. It provided them with a diagnosis and deeper understanding of Paul’s father’s condition;

training on how to best care for him, which allowed them to keep him at home much longer; access to experimental drugs, which greatly slowed down the disease’s progression; and then, eventually, entry into an assisted living home that had the resources to care for dementia patients.

At that time, there were only four Alzheimer residential care homes in New Orleans caring for 16 patients. “There just was very little available at the time, and most assisted living homes weren’t trained for patients like him,” said Paul.

Six years ago, when Ochsner’s President and CEO Warner Thomas shared his vision with Paul and Donna — plans to build a Neuroscience Center of Excellence, with resources to better serve cognitively-impaired patients and to explore the complex illnesses of the brain — the couple deeply understood the potential impact. In the past four years, the Ochsner Neuroscience Institute has developed into a cutting edge, patient-centered program — the only institution of its kind in the entire Gulf Coast region to achieve national ranking from U.S. News & World Report in neurology and neurosurgery. With some of the top experts in the field, its Brain Health and Cognitive Disorders Program takes a multidisciplinary approach to dementia care that is reflective of the Flowers’ own positive experience — emphasizing research, early diagnosis and comprehensive care plans geared toward increasing quality of life.

“In our program, we really want to be sure that we are providing answers to the questions of patients and family members,” said System Chair of Neurology Richard Zweifler, MD. “We want to minimize the stress and anxiety that comes with the diagnosis of a degenerative neurological disease and the uncertainty of what the future will hold. Then, we want to provide as much support

throughout that journey, with interventions that will reduce any chance for complications, so that all of these things together can maximize the quality of life not just for the patient, but also for family and loved ones.”

In 2016, the Flowers decided that they wanted to be involved in a meaningful way and donated $1 million to the Ochsner Neuroscience Institute. They have continued to support the program with both funding and voluntarism, and Paul currently serves on the Ochsner Health Foundation Board. “What their donations, and the donations of all of our patrons, have permitted us to do is create a multi-disciplinary team, changing the care model to be better able to provide as much care [for patients] in the home or in a care facility,” said Dr. Zweifler. “The funds also allow us to provide social support for patients and families, which is incredibly important as they continue through this difficult journey of neurological illness.”

At September’s Colors of the Mind fundraising event, hundreds of guests, adorned in vibrant colors, stood together in support of people who have suffered from neurological illnesses of every kind. The event raised more than $200,000 towards expanding the Institute’s research efforts, patient resources and caregiver support. And standing on that stage, Paul offered his story as an emotional-yet-hopeful reminder of why they were all there.

“The treatments that this program has developed, and the approaches they are taking today are so helpful in terms of improving life experience and helping families as they go through this journey. It just seems to me that this gives people who have to endure this the best possible life.” In watching the program’s progress, Paul said that he has been blown away at what’s been accomplished in such a short period of time.

“It’s well beyond what we imagined it would be,” he said. “When you just look at the innovation that’s there in everything they do — how to care and address strokes, spinal issues, how to improve the life and care for both the patient and the family for people with memory diseases — it’s very impressive.”

What happened to Paul’s father can happen to anyone, to all of us, he said. As our population’s lifespans continue to extend, we need to become better prepared to care for aging minds — an effort that everyone who can should become involved in.

“What Ochsner is doing is something that our particular region simply does not have,” he said.

Event co-chairs Kris Vitrano (left) and Erin Biro, MD (right) with Paul and Donna Flower (center).

Roger Smith, MD, CJ Bui, MD and Richard Zweifler, MD.

“It’s addressing an underserved need, and if we can grow this, our area could become to neurology what Houston is to cancer. Not only would this Institute provide a needed service to our community, but it could also create significant economic development, bettering both our home and our future, too.”

If you would like to support the future of brain health, please visit ochsner.org/alzheimers or contact Lucy King, Director of Development, at lucy.king@ochsner.org.