It was moving day for Dr. Janet Mitchell.
Her sister Blanche Hughes took down the family photos from the wall of Mitchell's room — a portrait of their mother, a photo of their father, a jockey, wearing racing silks and leather riding boots. She asked Mitchell to find her toothbrush and helped take the linens from the bed.
At age 57, Mitchell is not what we typically think of as elderly. She's 4 foot, 10 inches, tiny and trim like her father, with a close-cropped Afro. But at this relatively young age, Mitchell has been stricken with early-onset Alzheimer's, and Hughes has made the wrenching decision to place her in long-term care.
"Never in all my dreams did I ever think that I would have to take care of her," said Hughes. "First of all, she wasn't the type of person you would take care of. She always took care of herself."
In fact, Mitchell had a brilliant career taking care of others. With an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College, a medical degree from Howard University and a master's degree in Public Health from Harvard, she was a leading OB-GYN at Harlem and Lincoln hospitals in New York, specializing in neonatology. She was nationally known as a brilliant gynecological surgeon and a tireless advocate for patients with HIV/AIDS.
Her sister describes her as a "bright, bossy woman who knew what she wanted and went after it."
But now it's the doctor who's in need of care.
On a hot Saturday in June, Hughes hired two men to dismantle the furniture in her sister's room and helped carry her things to the moving truck.
At first, Mitchell was agreeable, helping her sister pack and laughing about childhood memories. But as she went to the garage to get in the car, she broke down. Finally it seemed to dawn on her where she was going, if not exactly why.
When asked whether she knew about Alzheimer's, she said yes. When asked whether she had it, she answered no.
Hughes can't believe she missed so many signs of her sister's illness, but the two lived almost a continent apart: Mitchell lived in New York while Hughes and her husband, Wayne Hughes, raised their children in Colorado.
"She would come home from New York once a year," Hughes said. "She was always working."
But she says that Mitchell was "different" during her last couple of Christmas visits.
"I thought it was depression. She had been through a tough divorce," she said. "Then our daughter Dana, who was really close to Janet and who lives in New York kept saying, 'Something's wrong.'"
"I was buying her food," said Dana Hughes, who's also an associate producer at ABC News. "If I didn't buy her food once a week she wasn't eating." Neighbors and friends say they were shocked that the once meticulous doctor was letting herself and her house go.
At her aunt's house, Dana Hughes found stacks of unopened mail, piles of old and new electronics, and a woman who appeared to be losing her grip on reality. "It showed the slow decay of her state of being," she said.
It all came to a head during a family reunion, when Mitchell became disoriented while driving from New York to Washington, D.C., and had to be rescued on the highway.
"Maybe there was some denial and I thought she would take some medication and be fine," said Blanche Hughes. "I already had to do this once, I shouldn't have to do it again," she says, recounting having to care for her ailing parents, particularly her father, who also had dementia.
Regardless, Hughes dutifully brought Mitchell to her house in Colorado and took her to a neurologist for tests.
"It was remarkable," Blanche said. "I saw the MRI. I could just see the brain atrophy. We don't know why, but at her age to have that kind of brain atrophy, there is usually some kind of environmental reason or virus. But at 57 she just has severe dementia."
The neurologist believes Mitchell's brain actually began to decay several years ago but went undiagnosed.
After six months of caring for Mitchell, it became apparent to the Hugheses that she needed full-time care, so the family looked to her assets to pay what would surely be a hefty amount for a quality long-term care facility. That's when they began to see how much the disease had damaged Mitchell's life: She had lost her job, she was in debt and she was facing foreclosure. The Hugheses realized the economic burden, the bill for the $3,000-a-month room at the assisted-living facility, would fall to them.
"To find out she has financial problems — it's like 'Wait a minute!' She should be taking care of us financially," Wayne Hughes said jokingly.
When asked about Mitchell's biggest asset, Blanche Hughes answered without hesitation: "Her house. And she lost that."
'Sale Between Relatives'?
Mitchell's story underscores just how vulnerable people with undiagnosed cases of early Alzheimer's can be.
It was her niece who made the shocking discovery that Mitchell had signed over her four-story Brooklyn brownstone for a fraction of its value.
"In New York, state property records are public," Dana Hughes said. When she became suspicious of a man her aunt spoke about, Dana says she did some digging. "I looked up the property record for this house and that's where I discovered that she had transferred the deed."
Mitchell and her former husband had bought the house nearly 20 years ago for $330,000. Its value has soared. The house next door sold recently for more than $2 million; a real estate agent two doors down says Mitchell's house would have fetched at least $1.5 million.
And who bought Mitchell's brownstone? A man named Mamun A. Mirza, whom her family believes she made contact with when she responded to an Internet ad from a subprime lender.
Instead of helping Mitchell get a loan through the mortgage company, Mirza apparently made his own deal. Documents obtained by "Nightline" indicate that Mitchell signed over her home to Mirza in exchange for him paying off her mortgage debt, which totaled roughly $200,000. The documents include a handwritten statement signed by Mitchell, along with papers indicating it was a "sale between relatives," signed by Janet and Mamun Mirza.
'This Is My House'
Mirza didn't want to discuss that transaction when approached by "Nightline." He said it was a legitimate transaction and denied knowing that Mitchell was a sick woman. "She wasn't sick at the time," Mirza said.
He also first denied submitting property documents indicating it was a deal between relatives, but later acknowledged doing so in what he claimed was a "filing error." He said his attorney "will fix that."
Mitchell's family and friends believe Mirza took advantage of a sick woman. Asked whether there was any possibility her aunt knew what she was doing when she signed the papers, Dana Hughes says emphatically no. "None whatsoever," she said. "I would base my life on that.There is no way she would sign away her house without a lawyer, on a handwritten contract, and get nothing in return."
When we talked with Mitchell five days after her move into the nursing home, she was unable to provide clear answers about the house or the transaction, a lapse that is characteristic of Alzheimer's victims.
Vicki Mabrey: Do you remember your house in Brooklyn?
Mitchell: Yeah, in Brooklyn, yeah. It's a house that a friend of ours had given to us.
Mabrey: Really? In Fort Greene?
Mabrey: What's happened to it?
Mitchell: No, it's still there.
Mabrey: Who owns it now?
Mitchell: Ah, my husband is there with it so it's OK.
Mabrey: Who's your husband?
Mitchell: (pause) I'm trying to remember who he is but that's OK.
In fact, Mitchell and her husband were divorced and he died two years ago. The house was purchased; it was not a gift from a friend.
'It's Going to Be OK'
Mitchell is equally confused about the deal with Mirza.
Mabrey: Did you sign your house over to him?
Mitchell shakes her head. Mabrey: Does he own your house now?
Mitchell: (shakes head no) 'Cause I told him that he didn't.
Mabrey: Did he try to buy your house from you?
Mitchell: He tried.
Mabrey: What did he say?
Mitchell: I said, "Excuse me, because you ain't coming into my house. That's what I told him. 'This is my house, it ain't your house.'"
The Hugheses says they have appealed to Mirza, asking him to provide some funds to help pay for Mitchell's long-term care. Public records indicate that since acquiring the deed in June 2005, he has taken out two loans against the property, totaling nearly $1.5 million.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, Blanche and Wayne Hughes will foot the bill for Mitchell's care, which now comes to $2,900 per month. As Blanche says, "That's my biggest fear and struggle right now, making sure she has the finances to take care of her in a nice place, because she worked hard and it would be nice for her to live in a nice place."
It has been a tragic descent for Dr. Janet Mitchell. The disease has robbed her and her family in so many ways.
"You have to say goodbye to the old Janet," Blanche Hughes said. "That's the only way you can do it. I can't keep thinking about, 'Oh, it's so sad, she used to be like this.' Well, yeah, look at her, so who is she now?"
As Mitchell breaks down crying in the nursing home, her sister holds her. "It's going to be Ok. Trust me," she says, "I'm your little sister who you can trust."