After the deadly, untreatable Huntington’s disease claimed their spouses, Jonathan Monkemeyer and Jane Mervar – once strangers, now close – decided to devote their lives to finding ways to speed the search for effective remedies and making the case for the importance of juvenile HD (JHD) in the process.
Without at first knowing the cause of his wife Sheryl’s strange illness, Jonathan quit his job in the early 2000s to become her full-time caregiver until she died from HD in 2009 at 46.
“It’s the thing you have to do,” Jonathan, an accomplished electrical engineer, said in a recent phone interview from his home in suburban Philadelphia. “You really don’t have a choice in our country. We did a lot of nice things, which was good. We did peaceful things like traveling to local gardens. She spent a lot of time with our son.”
Sheryl died at home. “I didn’t expect her to die,” Jonathan said. “I thought we would get the cure in time. The doctor said she had five years. But she fell and got hurt. She couldn’t sit. I had to hold her. Her weight went from 109 pounds to 89 pounds within four weeks. She died of a heart attack, which is like starving to death.”
Caring for Sheryl depleted the family’s life savings, Jonathan added. “I’m heating with wood right now,” he said. “I’m not using heating oil.”
The couple’s son Jonathan, now 14, has a 50-50 chance of having inherited the HD gene from his mother. (Usually only adults can decide whether to be tested for the gene, and most choose not to do so. Children can be tested if they already show symptoms.)
A parallel story
Halfway across the country in the village of L’Anse in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Jane faced her own difficult odyssey to decipher the disease afflicting her family. She lost not only her 49-year-old husband Karl, but also her 13-year-old daughter Karli Mukka to HD, both in early 2010. (Jane gave her daughters her maiden name.)
“Karl was a wonderful, ambitious, intelligent man,” Jane said at the start of an exhausting and emotional four-hour interview. “He had very strong family values. He could always make me laugh.”
However, she recounted, gradually “he started to change. Nobody could explain to me what was going on.”