THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
his is a cautionary tale about what early-
onset Alzheimer’s did to a colleague, my
wife Zandra Flemister. No Alzheimer’s
case is alike, but instances of the disease
are growing all too prevalent. Its onset is
very easy tomiss or misidentify. As yet
there is nomeans of prevention and no
cure, but there are measures that can be
taken to soften the impact. We managed
to take most of them, but we did a lot of groping. I hope our journey
can help others if they must travel that road.
Zandra joined State in June 1978. The Foreign Service was her
lifelong goal, and she loved the challenges of consular work. In
2006, after her most challenging and rewarding assignment—
supervisory consul general in Islamabad—Zandra was selected
for the Senior Foreign Service. She didn’t know that she was in
the early stages of Alzheimer’s. In 2010, having struggled while
John Collinge met Zandra Flemister in June 1978 as a
fellowmember of the 136th A-100 class, and they married
in 1981. He later lateraled from the State Department to
the Central Intelligence Agency, fromwhich he retired
in 2009. Mr. Collinge nowworks as an independent
contractor at the National Declassification Center located at the National
Archives at College Park. He is amember of the Arizona Bar. In January,
he will leave the Archives to pursue independent research and serve as a
volunteer family advocate at Arden Courts.
serving as State’s deputy at the Terrorist Screening Center, she
knew that another foreign assignment was out of the question.
Only a fewmonths into a tour at the Board of Examiners, she
knew she could not master the job and made the painful decision
to request retirement. Zandra had just turned 59.
Alzheimer’s is the master thief. First it stole her career, next her
memory, then her personality. In time, it will kill her. She is 64.
A Slow Decline into Professional Ineffectiveness
Alzheimer’s creeps up and envelops like the fog. In most
instances there is no knowing why, certainly not in Zandra’s case
where there was no family history of dementia. However, ongo-
ing research into why women develop Alzheimer’s at a higher
rate than men points to the effect of stress, estrogen and surgi-
cal anesthesia. Concussion may also play a role. Zandra led a
controlled-stress life typical of a Foreign Service officer in this age
of terrorism. She added juggling career and raising a moderately
Before joining State she pioneered as the first African-
American woman selected to be a Secret Service agent, spend-
ing much of her four years protecting the family members of
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. She also suffered a
serious concussion in an auto accident during the 1976 presiden-
tial campaign. Chronic fibroids prompted five surgeries during
her Foreign Service career and recourse to the estrogen patch for
nearly 20 years.
We do not know when her Alzheimer’s began, but in 2005 as
A Foreign Service
This is the heartbreaking story, told by a devoted spouse, of a vibrant and
trailblazing FSO’s descent into the most insidious form of dementia.
BY JOHN COL L I NGE
ON MENTAL HEALTH CARE FOR THE FOREIGN SERVICE