In sickness and health
Former Chico couple find new purpose following Alzheimer’s diagnosis
Bob Linscheid remembers exactly when he became convinced that something was seriously wrong with his wife, Pam Montana.
It was December 2015, and they were on vacation in Hawaii. He was driving them back to their hotel when Montana asked, “Where are we going?”
“Back to the hotel,” he replied, explaining that he needed to take a business call there.
Two minutes later, she asked again: “Where are we going?” Again, he told her they were going to the hotel.
Two or three minutes passed. Then she asked once more: “Where are we going?”
At that point, Linscheid pulled off the road, looked her in the eyes and said: “Do you realize you’ve asked me the same question three times in the past seven minutes?”
She didn’t remember any of it.
Montana’s neurologist referred her to specialists at UC San Francisco Medical Center. What followed were numerous visits with the doctors and cognitive tests to measure Montana’s memory loss, as well as CT/PET scans and an MRI.
Finally, on July 20, 2016, seven months after that roadside conversation, in a UCSF hospital room crowded with research physicians, interns and family members, she received her diagnosis: younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She was 61 years old.
As Montana later wrote in her blog—titled “My Journey with Alzheimer’s”—in some ways she felt validated. “I knew something was wrong and almost everyone kept saying my symptoms were ‘normal.’ But it’s not normal for a 58-year-old to repeat herself, or to struggle with learning new things, to forget conversations so much so that my role managing a sales team at Intel Corporation became such a huge burden.”
For Montana and Linscheid, life had taken a sharp and unavoidable turn. It would never be the same.
They have known each other since the mid-1970s, when Linscheid was student body president at Chico State and Montana worked at the Kopy Kat, the copying center located in the student union. Their paths crossed often, but they didn’t date and after graduation went separate ways.
For Montana, that meant the Bay Area and a long career—17 years—at the giant computer chip maker Intel, where she worked her way up to the executive level as director of a sales team. She’s by nature an articulate, outgoing and upbeat woman, and by all accounts she had a gift for inspiring and energizing her large staff.
Meanwhile, Linscheid had embarked on a diverse career in economic development centered mostly in Chico, where, among other things, he was president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce for seven years.
That was followed by 10 years as president and CEO of the Chico Economic Planning Corp., during which time he founded his own consulting firm, Linscheid Enterprises, and played a major role in creating and managing the Chico Heat professional baseball team.
In 2005, the California State University Alumni Council elected him to serve on the CSU board of trustees, a position he held for nine years, the last two of them as board chairman. It was the best unpaid job he ever had, he says.
This upward trajectory culminated in January 2013, when he was hired as president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, one of the largest (2,500 members) and most influential organizations of its kind on the West Coast.
He had no contact with Montana until 2007, when he received, out of the blue, an email from her. She’d seen his picture on the cover of the Chico State alumni magazine and wanted to say hello and offer congratulations.
They met for coffee, something clicked, and things took off from there. At that point in their lives both were single after being married twice. He had three sons and a daughter, all grown, and she had two adult daughters. They married in 2012.
Life was good then. Linscheid and Montana were both doing important work that they enjoyed, they were living in a lovely home next to a golf course in Danville, and grandchildren were arriving on the scene.
But Montana was starting to notice that she was having memory problems, especially while working. Though she was in sales, she needed to understand the company’s high-tech products, and she was failing at that.
Eventually, she realized that she no longer could work and went on medical leave from Intel. And Linscheid, knowing that he couldn’t care for his wife while working long hours in San Francisco, resigned from the Chamber of Commerce.
For both of them, leaving jobs they loved was wrenching.
“It was the first time in my life that I’d been without employment,” Linscheid said during a recent interview in the couple’s kitchen. “It was scary.” For Montana, leaving behind her many Intel friends was deeply saddening.
Linscheid was out of work for eight months. Then he got a call from Jeffrey Armstrong, president of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, offering him a job. As a CSU trustee, Linscheid had been on the search committee that hired Armstrong, and the latter was well aware of Linscheid’s wide-ranging and unique experience not only in economic development, but also in higher education.
The job Armstrong offered was as a senior adviser on economic development reporting directly to the president. Linscheid also will be the university’s representative to the Diablo Canyon nuclear-power plant’s decommissioning process.
Best of all, the job allows him to work at home most days.
Prior to receiving her diagnosis, Montana and Linscheid had kept knowledge of her memory issues largely to themselves in order to protect her privacy and also because they weren’t sure of the cause.
Immediately following the diagnosis, and heeding her doctor’s advice that she do “whatever makes you happy,” she decided to go back to work. This time, however, her job would be raising money for Alzheimer’s research and increasing awareness of the disease’s symptoms.
Going public was an act of courage. There’s a stigma attached to Alzheimer’s, and many patients withdraw from society. Montana was determined not to do that and, indeed, to wage a public fight against the stigma. She wanted people to know that the stereotypical image of an Alzheimer’s sufferer as a doddering grandma with crippling dementia doesn’t apply to people like her. “This is what Alzheimer’s looks like,” she often says.
She began the very next day by joining the advocacy team at the national Alzheimer’s Association. Montana next participated in an Alzheimer’s walk organized by Intel employees in Portland, where she once had worked. A week later she walked in Walnut Creek, raising $16,000, mostly from Intel employees.
Her third walk was in Chico’s Bidwell Park, in early October 2016. There, for the first time, she and Linscheid spoke publicly about her disease.
Shortly after that walk she began her blog. Here is what Montana wrote about her husband’s speech:
“My husband … is my rock and a strong, intelligent and loving man. We are fighting this together and I love his tenacity and strength. But when he got on stage in Chico, which was his home for over 20 years, and publicly said that his wife had Alzheimer’s, he could barely get the words out. His emotions were so raw, and even though we talk about it all the time, it’s not the same as telling 1,000 people that your wife has a terminal illness.”
Then, after taking a deep breath, Montana stepped up and told her story. “It was amazing and wonderful and empowering to publicly share the personal side of this disease,” she later wrote in her blog. “My goal was to raise awareness of the symptoms, and I stressed the importance of fighting for testing if you thought something was wrong.”
Little did she know that a video of her speech would be picked up by people involved with Part the Cloud, a major Silicon Valley Alzheimer’s fundraiser. Montana was invited to attend and speak, and while there she met Maria Shriver, who has been crusading against Alzheimer’s for years (her father, Sargent Shriver, died from the disease). That led to Montana’s joining Shriver in testifying before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, in Washington, D.C.
Chico was the beginning of what has become more than two years of activism on Montana’s part, with major assistance from her husband. She has served on the board of directors of the Northern California/Northern Nevada chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association as well as the board of the national Alzheimer’s Association. She has continued to speak to Alzheimer’s groups, including the National Alzheimer’s Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C., and the Move for Minds fundraiser in San Francisco, among others.
She also has been the subject of several newspaper articles and featured in a number of television shows, including a “Brief but Spectacular” segment on the PBS NewsHour.
Montana stays busy. On her blog—now grown to more than 75 entries—she posted a list of a dozen things she tries to do every day to forestall the disease’s progress, from exercising and writing in her journal to meditation and prayer. She spends time with her friends, her kids and her grandchildren. “I do what makes me happy,” she writes, “which may include watching TV or a movie or just sitting outside and looking at the sky.”
She has down days but generally remains upbeat. Every moment is precious, she says.
“Alzheimer’s does not define me, it does not bring me down,” she writes in her blog. “I have a new purpose in life! I have been given an opportunity to help others and raise awareness and hopefully to help find a cure. What a gift!”