The University of South Florida unveiled a new Alzheimer's center on Thursday with a high-tech PET scanner on one side, a mini apartment on the other and cozy living room at the center.
Its purpose is to diagnose the brain disease as early as possible in a setting created to soften the blow of the devastating news.
There's nothing else like the new center in the world, said David Morgan, director of the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute.
Morgan's goal is nothing short of preventing the onset of the ravaging brain disease.
Researchers estimate that more than 5 million people in the country have Alzheimer's disease, including 50,000 in the Tampa Bay area.
There is no cure. But the earlier the diagnosis, the more doctors can do to deal with the disease and find new treatments, Morgan said.
Byrd medical director Amanda Smith likened it to heart disease. In the past, doctors didn't know people had heart trouble until their hearts failed. Now they know the warning signs and have dozens of ways to ward off an attack.
Researchers are nearing that point with Alzheimer's, Morgan said.
By the end of the decade, maybe sooner, "the opportunity to prevent Alzheimer's will be there."
The new Center for Memory C.A.R.E., – for clinical assessment, research and education – is on the second floor of the Byrd institute at USF in Tampa, which does both research and treatment of Alzheimer's.
The project began with Morgan's plan two years ago to get a positronic emission tomography scanner, or PET scanner. Researchers are beginning to use the devices to see the earliest signs of Alzheimer's, the amyloid plaques in the brain that begin forming up to 10 years before memory loss begins.
Morgan is a researcher, but he shares space at Byrd with Smith and other doctors and counselors who treat Alzheimer's patients and provide support for their caregivers.
There's so much more they need than the results of a trip through high-tech scanner, they told him.
His friends who've been caregivers also helped him understand the sometimes unbearable challenge of caring for someone with Alzheimer's, he said.
"They told me they could never figure out how to get the help they really needed,'' Morgan said.
"We decided if we put everything here, people will know where to come to get help."
In one visit, C.A.R.E. patients will see a team of counselors and doctors, undergo scans and laboratory tests, and get a diagnosis and treatment plan that day.
In the simulated apartment, they can work with occupational therapists who'll look at whether they can manage at home on their own, whether they can do laundry or make a piece of toast.
Outside the apartment is a spot for a driving simulator. It's not there yet, but it will show whether the patient can still operate a car safely.
There are also machines to test the patient's balance and risk of falling.
While the patients are taking tests, their caregivers can wait in an area set up like a living room, with open spaces and private corners. Next to it is a kitchen and dining room.
Every detail was selected to create an orderly, calming feeling, said Byrd associate director Jessica Banko.
The clocks are big and easy to read and the decorations on the walls are all of trees, flowers, birds – things that are easy to identify. No abstract art.
Smith, Banko and other Byrd staff members helped pick them out.
"We have a real sense of ownership," Smith said.
The rooms where the doctors and counselors see patients face the west, with big windows that let the sunlight in.
The most important area to Francine Shebell is the consultation room, where the doctors will meet with the patients and caregivers to talk about the diagnosis and possible treatment.
Shebell's husband, Peter, has Alzheimer's disease. They had just moved to the Tampa area when he was diagnosed.
"I was all alone. There was nobody to help me or tell me what to do next. It was such a nightmare."
She eventually brought Peter to the Byrd center for treatment.
"If I'd had a place like this in the beginning, it would have made so much difference,'' she said. "Here you have help, friends. You have people willing to listen and help you figure out what to do."
She made a contribution to the center, and the consulting room is dedicated to her and her husband.
Most of the $3.5 million it cost to build the center came from private donations, said USF Health spokeswoman Anne Baier.
The center expects to see its first patients next month.
"This is still a work in progress, so we're going to take it slow," Morgan said.
But one day, he said, he hopes to see people coming to Byrd's C.A.R.E center from across the country, perhaps the world.