Mississippi lawmaker discloses dementia diagnosis from floor

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Posted: Mar 24, 2017 6:02 PM
Mississippi lawmaker discloses dementia diagnosis from floor

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A colorful Mississippi state lawmaker who is an undertaker by trade drew a standing ovation from colleagues Friday after announcing from the House floor that he has dementia, vowing to live out his days with "the gusto of a hound dog."

"As a professional undertaker, I have looked death in the face for over 40 years now," said 61-year-old state Rep. Steve Holland, as his colleagues sat mutely. "Remember, I'm a tough old bird."

Holland said he learned only last week of the diagnosis and discussed keeping it private with his wife but decided to go public to raise awareness of the condition. While Holland's passionate floor speeches are legendary, his voice hitched as he made his announcement. He vowed to try to serve out his term.

Dementia, which affects millions in the U.S., is generally described as a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life — with Alzheimer's disease its most common form. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said better understanding the diverse forms of dementia as the U.S. population ages is essential to the future of public health.

Holland didn't identify what exact form his dementia took.

On bad days, Holland said in a subsequent interview with The Associated Press, he doesn't recognize names or faces or even where he is. He can be behind the wheel of a car and suddenly have no idea where he's going.

"I have paced myself this session," Holland also said in the interview conducted en route to a hospital for one of his near-daily appointments.

As part of his therapy, he said he usually plays piano an hour a day in a Jackson church_reading from sheet music, not from memory.

Holland has served in the Mississippi legislature since 1984. He said he intends to serve out his four-year term through 2019, even though he knows his condition will only worsen with time.

He's well-known for dramatic floor speeches and humor, often rallying opposition to Republican measures. In 2012, Holland introduced a satirical resolution to rename the Gulf of Mexico the Gulf of America, trying to make a point about what he saw as anti-Mexican bias.

As for his constituents, he quipped Friday that they "have believed in my mission for over nine terms — even if they haven't believed in my style or my warped display of passion."

But the representative from northern Mississippi's Lee County is more than a jester. When Democrats held the House majority, Holland was a key policymaker, and was especially close to its speaker from 2004 to 2012. He helped shape Medicaid and other programs on a top public health committee and at one point led the House agriculture committee, an important post in a rural Southern state.

One longtime friend, Democrat Rep. Tommy Reynolds, said he hopes his friend's diagnosis isn't as bad as he implied.

"He can say things that other people_they'd want to get up and choke somebody for," he said. "But he brings issues up that need to be brought."

After Holland's announcement, lawmakers gave him a standing ovation with extended cheers and whistles, and Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn led a prayer for his colleague.

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Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.