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15 Minutes of Fame: Holding fast to Azeroth through the journey of Alzheimer's

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

Bill Craig is doing it right. The 61-year-old WoW player has suffered from early-onset Alzheimer's disease for half a dozen years now, winding his way through Azeroth for about half that time. He's ridden a bicycle all the way from Carrollton, Texas, to Carrollton, Georgia, to raise money and awareness for animal welfare -- not once but twice. He's a Vietnam vet. He serves as an advocate with the Alzheimer's Association, having recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., with his wife to meet with legislators about bills impacting Alzheimer's. Bill's contributions and commitment to his community and country are impressive for any seasoned professional, let alone someone living with a disease that monkeywrenches a person's thinking, memory and behavior.

I know Bill's doing it right because I live under the baleful gaze of Alzheimer's, too. My mother passed away two years ago after a particularly cruel struggle with the disease. She began batting aside its first tendrils while caring for my grandmother, also stripped bare by Alzheimer's. My father wanders through a related type of dementia -- perversely, with all the sets of symptoms my mother never developed. (Ding! We hit the jackpot, I guess.) In my work, I've written about Alzheimer's and the incredible burdens it places on families, parents with young children who now also care for their own parents over the painfully protracted years it takes life to trickle away. Alzheimer's is inextricably part of my life, too.

So none of that makes me special -- Alzheimer's grip on families is all too common -- but it does mean I can say one thing with certainty: Bill Craig is doing it right. His view of Azeroth, however, is very different from yours or mine.

Main character Wolkenlaufre
Guild Knights Who Say Ja
Realm Alexstrasza (US)

15 Minutes of Fame: Bill, help our readers, if you would, understand a little more about early-onset Alzheimer's disease. What were the first signs you noticed that something might be wrong?

Bill Craig: I first began noticing serious problems in my work as a respiratory therapist in the ER of the hospital where I was employed, although I think the problem began way before that. I have now been unable to work for three years and am considered disabled.

An example of the "little things" that went on about 6 years ago: I lived alone in an apartment and was looking for a particular china plate, which belonged to a set I had inherited from my mother. Couldn't find it and got panicky. I remembered that a couple of days before that, the building's repair guy was in the apartment doing some work while I was gone, so when I couldn't find the plate, I called the office and accused him of having stolen it.

I had put it in the microwave.

Of course, I very quickly went in person and apologized profusely.

[I began to notice] misplacing things, throwing money into the trash when I'd have the bills in one hand and the trash in the other.

Major things: It was part of my job to assist in CPR and put the patient on the ventilator if needed. One night, we had just revived someone and I got the vent, turned it on, and nothing happened. It didn't cycle and kept alarming. I could NOT figure out what was wrong, and then one of the nurses held up the power cord and asked me, "Does this look familiar to you, Bill?" It wasn't plugged in.

I also drew arterial blood to be analyzed in order to set the parameters on the machine to best assist the patient. One night I did that, ran the blood, got the values printed out, and suddenly blanked out. I didn't know how to set the machine and had to call my boss at home.

It was then I began seeing a neurologist. This was late in 2007.

As things got worse with my short-term memory, I made up my mind to leave my profession before I hurt or killed one of my patients. It wasn't an easy decision to make, and I miss taking care of my patients very much. We live in a small "Mayberry" kind of town, and my patients knew me when they'd see me in town and would ask what happened to me. I just tell them I took an early retirement.

How old are you now?

I am 61 now.

What symptoms and challenges do you have to work with on a daily basis now?

I do my daily hygiene by a list and not going from one thing to another, as I used to be able to do; I don't remember what day it is (my wife keeps track of appointments), and because I have a tendency to tune out, I can no longer drive. This means I am pretty much landlocked and puts a burden on my wife (who already is a caregiver to an elderly brother and sister), so we sit down on a regular basis and discuss what's needed in the way of toiletries, appointments, and other important dates. I try very hard not to be any trouble to her, as she also still works part-time as a respiratory therapist.

My daily chores include vacuuming, washing clothes, making the bed, and doing the dishes as well as feeding the cat and taking care of his litter. Anything I can do to make her life easier here at home, I do, and for that I get to play WoW sometimes until the wee hours of the morning!

How long have you played World of Warcraft? Did you play MMOs or other video games before your diagnosis?

I have played WoW for 3+ years. Before I was diagnosed, the video games I played were mostly casino games. I have since picked up Fable and You Don't Know Jack. I play Fable mostly on Tuesdays when Blizzard does updates/patches.

So do you look at WoW as part of your cognitive therapy, an enjoyable pastime, or some mixture of both?

Warcraft helps me with my cognitive functions in that it makes me have to remember what weapons/abilities I'll need to defeat which monster. There are so many aspects of the game to think about that it keeps me busy the entire time I'm online, whether it be fighting or working on my profession or ancillary skills. The repetition helps a lot when I do dailies, and I also enjoy doing business in the auction house. There, I usually check what a particular item is bringing in and offer mine just a bit below that. I farm a lot of Frostweave Cloth, Borean and Savage Leather, and I think I have some regular customers.

How does Alzheimer's affect your playstyle?

There are some things that are just too tough for me to figure out, and I stay away from them if I can. I find the tanking technique very hard to understand. In addition, I don't bind my keys. It's just too hard for me to remember which key does which action, so I use the mouse and the cursor and am comfortable with that. There have been Post-Its all over my screen, but I have been able to remove most of them, as I have learned through repetition how to do various things.

When I first began playing, any time I'd get into combat, I'd just click on any ability with no rhyme or reason. My friend Megan has been a huge help to me repeatedly by telling me which buttons to click and when. She also makes recommendations for my talents, which is another part of the game I don't understand so well ...

I do get very frustrated with myself because Wolkie is supposed to be a tank, but I just don't understand the strategy of being one, so I do only DPS under those circumstances. Even then, however, I mess up, get upset with myself, apologize and leave. Soloing is much better for me.

Are there any parts of the game that you simply find too complex or confusing?

One thing I had (and still do have) difficulties with is being careful to buy the right armor/weaponry. Early on, I was buying things for Wolkie that helped his intellect when I should have been buying for strength, stamina, and hit ratings. It was at those times that some very kind players took me under their wing and helped me get some decent gear. I will always remember this, and I am very grateful. I also never miss a chance to pay it forward when I can.

I love the game and enjoy immersing myself in Azeroth, and for the amount of time I am online, that is where I live. Sometimes Silka (my gryph and land mount) and I just fly/ride around and enjoy the pretty scenery. I have about eight alts, and their payday from Wolkie is every Friday when I send them 25 gold from what I've earned on quests, vendor sales, and auctions. I try to play each one at least once a week, but when I do, I have to refer to notes to remember what abilities they may have that are different from Wolkie's.

What about day-to-day variations in what you feel able to do?

With the Alzheimer's, I have good and bad days, and when they're bad, I notice it when my mind wanders and I get killed or when I sometimes forget where I am and what I'm supposed to be doing. At those times, I try to play one of the alts, do some easy dailies, or make sure there's plenty of health consumables in my bags. One of the reasons I enjoy the game so much is because I don't put any pressure on myself.

There have been a couple of times when I've been killed that I absolutely could not find my corpse. That usually happens on a sluggish Alzheimer's day. I just pay my penalty, get sick, and get fixed. I also have trouble in dark places such as Ironforge or the Deadmines. I get disoriented there very easily.

Tell us about your guild!

I formed this guild mainly to help new players get started with a little gold and some consumables for their health, but now it is basically just me. This is fine with me, because I don't think I would be able to group with anyone very much beyond level 10, even though Wolkie is an 85. I just don't remember all the quests/dungeons that well. I could take them through the Stockades, but not Deadmines. I have tried and only embarrassed myself. This is the main reason I stay solo, even though it is just me in the guild.

That is not to say I haven't had help from time to time. Someone might have invited me to join their guild and I would tell them I don't function well in raids/dungeons, and if they ask why, then I explain. It is mostly the kids who don't believe me -- the adults usually engage me in conversation because they themselves may have a family member with the disease.

I want only to help others the way people have helped me. Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to tell if it really is a new player or if someone's just rolled a new alt. I had hoped to populate the guild with players better than myself, make them officers with privileges and all of us together pitch in to help the newer players.

What else do you enjoy doing when you're not playing WoW?

I was an English major with journalism minor in college, so I enjoy writing and am currently doing research on my favorite composer, Beethoven, and speculate about the fact that he himself may have had Alzheimer's-related dementia. Also, there's my blog, Where To, Bud?, which is a conglomeration of Alzheimer's facts, news, and a personal diary of sorts. I try to keep a sense of humor about what's going on with me, so that blog is very lighthearted as well as (I hope) informative.

I am a musician (primarily drums) and like to sit and play for my own enjoyment. I am teaching myself bass and keyboard and intend to spend at least one hour a day with each instrument.

I used to skydive before I was diagnosed, and I still could, provided I jumped tandem every time. But since I've been diagnosed, no one wants to take me up because they don't want to take the risk I might forget something important up there!

I am involved in animal welfare advocacy and last September rode my bicycle from Carrollton, Texas, back here to Carrollton, Georgia, to call attention to the need for pet spaying, neutering and adopting as well as the establishment of a no-kill nation. I ride my Trek 1000 bike on the Silver Comet Trail, which is an abandoned railroad track that has been paved and runs through Georgia and into Alabama.

Your energy is incredible! And you're quite active in Alzheimer's education and advocacy, isn't that right?

I am also an Alzheimer's Association advocate, which means I am in contact with my legislators making sure they know all the latest developments, medicines, and facts so they're educated and can draft sound legislation that will benefit Alzheimer's patients as well as caregivers.

[My wife and I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., where we] visited with Georgia legislators, both House and Senate, to ask them for their support of House Bill HR 5926, the HOPE for Alzheimer's Act (HOPE stands for Health Outcomes Planning and Education), the Alzheimer's Breakthrough Act, and the National Alzheimer's Project Act. This advocacy conference was attended by advocates from every state in the union and lasted three days. My wife Dondra and I are active year-round and are in touch with the legislators from our district regularly.

Kudos to both Bill and his wife on their advocacy for Alzheimer's patients and research and to Bill for his selfless volunteerism and optimism. Learn more about Alzheimer's disease at the Alzheimer's Association, read about Bill's most recent cross-country bike ride for animals at Carrollton to Carrollton Ride To Care, and follow Bill's journey with Alzheimer's at his personal blog, Where To, Bud?
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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