For 29 years, a U.S. Navy plaque has hung in an exam room of Donn Dexter, M.D. It commemorates his military service as a hospital corpsman on the USS Ranger aircraft carrier from 1972 to 1976. It may be small, but it represents the biggest decisions that shaped his life: to join the U.S. Navy at 18 and pursue a career in medicine.
Occasionally, patients would comment about the plaque or thank Dr. Dexter for his service, but overall, it garnered little attention by the thousands of patients he cared for over the decades. That is until one day in November 2021, when Dan and Jill McElroy sat in the exam room. When Dr. Dexter walked through the door, Dan greeted him with an enthusiastic "Good afternoon, shipmate."
The McElroys of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, noticed the plaque right away. Dan and Jill's father, Larry R. Fout, also served on the USS Ranger in the 1970s. Upon closer inspection, they realized Dan and Larry were shipmates with Dr. Dexter.
"I was floored. In 29 years, this has never happened before," says Dr. Dexter. "I understand that it's a small world, but that was a pretty limited period of time and it was a long time ago. I just didn't think that I would ever meet a fellow Ranger sailor in my office."
Different paths, same destination
In 1968, Dan McElroy enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Originally, he planned to attend Cornell University, but he changed his mind when he learned he could play football and learn to fly at the college.
A few years later, Dan met Jill in Florida, and he proposed at the top of the Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction in Disneyland Park in California. Weeks after their wedding in 1972, Dan left for a seven-month deployment as an ensign on the USS Ranger. He was stationed in the Philippines for a temporary assignment prior to flight training.
At this time, Dr. Dexter was fresh out of hospital corpsmen training in San Diego and assigned to the USS Ranger. While on the ship, he reported up to the senior medical officer, Commander Larry Fout ― Dan McElroy's father-in-law. During his tour, he received additional training in podiatry and served as an operating room technician and cast technician.
Dr. Dexter completed his military commitment on the USS Ranger in 1976. With encouragement from a mentor, he attended the University of Minnesota using the GI Bill and medical school at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. He started practicing neurology at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin ― what was then Luther Midelfort ― in 1993.
Dan's tour on the USS Ranger ended in 1973, and he trained to be a pilot. In 2000, he retired as a captain in the U.S. Navy after serving 32½ years. The couple and their two daughters love colder climates, so they moved to Wisconsin in 2002. Jill worked as a school counselor and Dan as a golf course and school administrator until they retired in 2017 and 2016, respectively.
Searching for memories
During the appointment, Dan and Dr. Dexter realized they had many shared memories aboard the USS Ranger, including a rescue mission of a fallen aircraft. It's possible they were in the same rescue boat 40 years ago and 8,000 miles away in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam.
The search for memories is the primary reason they were in Dr. Dexter's office that day. Starting about five years ago, Jill began to struggle with her memory. She was tested at a local clinic and told it was stress-related. The test was repeated 2½ years later with the same result and diagnosis. The McElroys' daughters urged the couple to seek a second opinion.
"A neighbor gets a physical at Mayo Clinic every year and told us how wonderful it was," says Dan. "We researched around and figured out that Mayo was the best for this."
The McElroys traveled to Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire for a neuropsychological assessment with Michele Ries, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist. This assessment measured the integrity of Jill's cognitive functions like memory, language and problem-solving.
"Results of the assessment showed marked decline in memory concerning for Alzheimer’s disease," says Dr. Ries. "I recommended that Jill complete a brain MRI for further diagnostic clarification."
After an MRI, Jill and Dan met with Dr. Dexter in Mayo Clinic Health System's Memory Care Clinic, which is affiliated with the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute. During this appointment, Dr. Dexter reviewed her neuropsychological assessment and MRI results.
"Her MRI pays attention to things like hippocampal volume loss. This, along with her memory struggles, are consistent with Alzheimer's disease," says Dr. Dexter. "Jill is a delight. She's one of those people where friends and family are often surprised with a diagnosis because she's has good verbal skills and pays attention to things. But when you dive into it, you realize she has really poor memory."
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurologic disorder that causes the brain to shrink and brain cells to die. Approximately 5.8 million people in the U.S. 65 and older live with the disease. There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease.
The couple was shocked and saddened by her diagnosis.
"I am so frightened, but I know I'm in good hands. I never thought I would have to experience this, and we have no family history," says Jill. "But when we realized the connection between Dr. Dexter and my dad, I felt like my dad was in the room with us and we found the right doctor."
Dr. Dexter reassured the couple that their team would do all they could do to guide them through the diagnosis and available treatment options. "I told them that I have two brothers, but I will treat Jill as if she were my sister," he says.
Jill is taking medications with the hope that it slows the disease progression, and she is spending as much time as possible with their daughters and four grandchildren. After decades of experience as primary caregiver, Jill has transitioned this role to Dan.
"They are one of those couples where you think, 'Gosh, I hope I'm lucky enough to have a spouse who is so involved and willing to go the extra mile as they are,'" says Dr. Dexter. "Jill is in really good hands with him."
Dan admits to having moments of fear and worry, but as a self-proclaimed optimist, he is trying to focus on the positive.
"I think that everything happens for a reason, and I've decided that this is happening because Jill is going to be the first survivor of Alzheimer's."
Dr. Dexter has cared for thousands of patients over his career, but the opportunity to help a fellow shipmate has made a lasting impression on him.
"Meeting them reminded me of how lucky I was to join the Navy and have the assignments that I had," says Dr. Dexter. "It changed my life in such a positive way. It's neat that we were on the same ship together and able to reconnect and help Jill. These personal connections are what medicine is all about."