By Russ Riesinger

BILLINGS - Octavia Hatch was just a young girl when her grandfather when began showing increasingly erratic behavior.

“He would take off. He thought he was still married to his ex-wife. He would make strange movements,” she remembers.

Her grandfather was also unable to hold a job and was about to be sent to jail when he was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease.

“He kept violating restraining orders and there just happened to be a doctor in the courtroom (who) said, 'I think he might have this disease,'” she says.

Huntington’s Disease is a brain disease that causes deterioration in a person’s physical, mental and emotional abilities.

Hatch’s grandfather lived until she was 16. “He finally passed away from pneumonia from aspirating all those years,” she says.

Huntington’s Disease is handed down in families from generation to generation. Not long after her grandfather died, Hatch’s mother was diagnosed with it.

“We first noticed when we were trying to play double dutch with her, and all of a sudden her hand would go out. She couldn’t control her hand. And that was kind of our first initial instinct that she might be starting to show the signs,” Hatch says.

According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, symptoms can vary but usually include:
  • Personality changes, mood swings and depression
  • Forgetfulness and impaired judgment
  • Unsteady gait and involuntary movements
  • Slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and significant weight loss.
“I’ve had people call and report here as being drunk or intoxicated in public—or that she is on something, but it is just her movements,” she says.

Hatch was left with a difficult decision whether to get the testing to find out if she, too, has the defective gene that causes Huntington’s. She decided to be tested.

“I ended up getting tested for my 18th birthday and ended up finding out that I was positive,” she says.

Hatch continues to work as a patient care technician in the ER at the Billings Clinic and keep an optimistic attitude, but she also knows what her future likely holds unless research can one day lead to better treatments or a cure.

She’s been told the symptoms will likely begin to show up in her 30s or 40s.

“I feel like I have gone through it enough times. I know the fate. I know what is ahead and I’m not afraid of it. It will happen eventually, but when that time comes is when we will face it head on,” she says.

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