The Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wisconsin, is one that Kurt “Charlie” Steil has skied many times (24, in fact). He even finished in the top 20 in 1988, earning him recognition as his local newspaper’s Male Athlete of the Year. This year, however, the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, resident pinned the phone numbers of his friends and family on his jacket in case he got lost on the trail. The Leader-Telegram reports that Charlie was on a four-year hiatus from the Birkie (as the locals are wont to call it) due to health conditions that involved short-term memory loss. This year, as the newspaper tells it, he was “coaxed out of Birkie retirement largely by his daughter, Carie Steil, 28, a local physical therapist who is doing her first one.”
In 2012, Charlie’s friends and family began to notice his memory loss and the newspaper reports that he was diagnosed with “amnesthic mild cognitive impairment, or short-term memory loss, robbing him of his ability to go about his daily life the way he once did.” This diagnosis prompted Charlie to retire early from his job as supervisor of cardiopulmonary services, rehabilitation and diagnostics at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, where he'd worked for 26 years.
Since his diagnosis, Charlie has participated in a large study group (approximately 500 people) at Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minnesota. He visits Mayo once a year for three days of testing. David Knopman, M.D., a Mayo neurologist, tells the Leader-Telegram “the federally funded study is focused on understanding the underlying causes and genetics, when there is a genetic cause.” The goal, Dr. Knopman says, is to diagnose patients “early to learn how they change over time and hopefully use that as a basis for developing treatments.”
Dr. Knopman also tells the newspaper that, “People with mild cognitive impairment, such as Charlie, face a higher risk of increased memory loss, possibly leading to dementia. However, some patients don’t get worse.” He says staying active, by doing things like skiing the Birkie, is a good way to fight the disease. Charlie certainly seems to be doing just that. He completed the 2015 Birkie with his daughter and now has his eyes set on the 2016 race.
Glide over at a leisurely pace and share your comments below. Then, share this story with others.