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East Ventura County Focus

WESTLAKE VILLAGE : Alzheimer's Patient, 88, Slips Into Coma

December 20, 1995|MACK REED

Ten years after Alzheimer's disease began stealing Ferne Burnes' mind, she is finally dying.

Burnes, the Santa Paula nursing home resident featured in Sunday's Times, has slipped into a coma after 88 years of living and is not expected to last many more days, her husband said Tuesday.

"Her heart got a little tired and stopped after 88 years of bumping away," said Peter Burnes, who rushed to his wife's side Monday evening on hearing of her condition from nursing home staff.

"This thing makes you want to cry, and I do cry," said Burnes, 87, who lives in Westlake Village. "But it's coming to an end."

A doctor confirmed that Ferne had suffered a heart attack that sent her into a coma, and that there was nothing to do but wait for her death.

So Peter Burnes--whom many praise as a strong, vocal advocate for better understanding of the mysterious and incurable disease that is killing his wife--went about arranging to donate his wife's body to science.

Doctors will use Ferne's brain to learn more about the progression of the disease that kills 100,000 Americans each year, said Dr. Gail Murdock, program coordinator for the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Southern California.

The federally funded research center offers free neurological and neuropsychological diagnoses to elderly people who may have Alzheimer's or other illnesses of dementia, she said. The clinic is tracking about 300 people, who check in about every six months so doctors can measure their progress, she said.

"Mr. Burnes is an extremely delightful, motivated man, who's just done a wonderful job taking care of his wife," Murdock said Tuesday. "He's done a lot for Alzheimer's disease in terms of educating the public and letting them know how difficult a process it is to go through losing someone you love over a long period of time."

Ferne Burnes was resting comfortably at Twin Pines Healthcare Center on Tuesday, being fed by intravenous tubes, her family close by, her husband said.

"We all agreed, she looked pretty well," Peter Burnes said. "She's in a coma and there's not one darn thing I can do about it. The doctor and I some time ago decided that there was to be no exotic life support systems."

He added, "We're all reconciled to the fact that Mother's had a nice life and it's probably time."

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