Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

New Ray of Hope for Pete

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
       WASHINGTON — He doesn't claim to be cured, but Sen. Pete Domenici said Tuesday that a prominent doctor has raised doubts he suffers from the degenerative brain disease that prompted his decision to retire from the Senate after 36 years in office.
    Cured or not, Domenici said he's feeling better than he has in months and is optimistic about his future based on recent medical diagnoses.
    A devout Catholic, Domenici didn't discount the power of prayer in connection with his improved condition.
    Domenici said he doesn't know why his condition hasn't worsened, but said he suspects God has played a role. Everywhere he goes people tell him they are praying for him. His sister is a nun, and she has also been appealing to God for help, he said.
    The doctor who originally diagnosed him said she can't explain why the disease appears to be stalled. "But she mentioned that she wouldn't discount my faith," Domenici said.
    A Republican who held the Senate seat in a Democrat-majority state for nearly four decades, Domenici cited the degenerative brain disease when he announced his retirement last October.
    The man tagged with the nickname "Saint Pete" for his ability to help the state, said the decision to retire has been difficult but he doesn't regret it because of other ailments that have left him in persistent pain.
    And he was clearly pleased by better news on the medical front — that even if the disease is still there, it's at least stalled for now.
    "It's very exciting for us — for me and my wife, Nancy," Domenici, 76, told the Journal.
    Diagnosis questioned
    Domenici said he recently agreed, at his wife's urging, to participate in a clinical trial for people afflicted with frontotemporal lobar degeneration, which he was diagnosed with last year.
    As part of the trial, he submitted to a battery of medical tests at the National Institutes of Health three months ago. The lead doctor, a medical researcher, gave the senator some surprising news after studying his results: He didn't qualify for the study.
    "He said 'you can't be in the clinical group because I don't find any relationship between the frontal lobe in your brain and the cognitive disorders you have,' " Domenici recalled. "I concluded with him that I must therefore not have the disease. He would not conclude that. He just said 'you have some cognitive problems and they are not coming from the frontal lobe, which is much less (severe), and different.' "
    Domenici then sought out the doctor who initially diagnosed him with the degenerative brain disease to get a second opinion.
    "She would not give in, but she said I was a very lucky man because the disease has not moved one bit, and that is exceptional — almost unexplainable," Domenici said.
    He added that both doctors agreed his condition could improve if he reduced the amount of medication he takes for other physical ailments, including arthritis and nerve damage.
    Form of dementia
    Experts in frontotemporal lobar degeneration, which is a rare form of dementia, told the Journal last year that it eats away at a patient's brain, causes dramatic personality changes, progresses rapidly and ends in a difficult death. About 250,000 Americans are believed to suffer from FTLD.
    The disease is not well understood, but researchers believe it is caused by accumulations of proteins on cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. The brain cells die and the brain shrinks over time. Those areas of the brain control personality, emotions, judgment and decision-making.
    But Domenici said he now believes that grim prognosis might not apply to him and he plans to spend his days accordingly.
    "I'm not going to act, and I'm not going to live my life as if I have this bad disease," Domenici said. "I'm going to go on living as if it's not there because I don't think I have any symptoms from it."
    While thrilled at the positive medical news, Domenici said preparing to leave Capitol Hill after 36 years is difficult emotionally. The senator's office — once a New Mexico shrine filled with Indian art, Nambé silver and Southwestern mementoes — is mostly packed up, the once-lively walls now barren and beige.
    "There is no question I already miss being a senator tremendously," Domenici said. "It is a very difficult thing I'm going through, but there is no desire to even think about turning back."
    The senator said his new lease on life has invigorated him to keep working on issues he cares about, especially the promotion of nuclear power. He said he's close to announcing his second career, but declined to say exactly what he would do.
    "I'll busy myself in the same fields but I won't have a vote," Domenici said. "I'm going to be free to do a lot of work in the nuclear area and other areas, and I think I've found a niche where I'm going to go lead."
    However, the senator isn't second-guessing his decision to retire. Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, will succeed him after winning the Senate seat in this month's election.
    "I think it is still the right decision," Domenici said. "I'm 76, and I have a lot of aches and pains. I have a lot of back problems and lots of pain in my right hand."