When 74-year-old Shirley Lee was found two days after going missing on Christmas Eve, it felt like a “miracle” for her grandson Christopher Chase.
“I can’t describe it anyway else,” he said. “If she hadn’t been found, another couple hours, the temperature, with the wind chill, it would have been her last night.”
Lee, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, had left her Scarborough apartment on Monday around 9 p.m.
“Apparently she had done this before,” Chase said. “But she’d always come back.”
So when she hadn’t returned after 20 minutes, her husband, Don, first called their daughter, Chase’s mother, and then the rest of the family.
What started as a search led by Lee’s family members became, within 24 hours, a Level 3 police search, the highest level that exists. Toronto police deployed mounted and marine units, set up a command post, and even put out drones.
Over 48 hours, Lee was spotted twice. Police said she was first sighted in the area of Lawrence Ave. E and Morningside Ave. and later in the area of Eglinton Ave. near Kingston and Markham Rds., releasing surveillance photos to the public.
Police didn’t ask for citizen volunteers, but professional dog trainer Margaret Pender decided to lend a hand, after catching wind of the search Wednesday morning via Facebook, with the aid of a friend’s bloodhound named Fletcher. The dog was currently undergoing scenting training, and she thought he might have been able to pick up some trace of the missing senior.
“We had a sweater that she (Lee) had worn, so I let Fletcher smell it before we went off to find her,” Pender said. “I thought it was worth a shot.”
The search was called off when Lee was found at 9:30 p.m. on Boxing Day. Police said she was found by a citizen.
Lee was located in a gated area near Cornell Jr. Public School, Chase said, close to where he lives. She was just “leaning against a wall,” he said.
“To know that she was basically at my front door, I was like ‘wow, she was right there’ and we were all looking in the area where the footage was, and for her to make it all the way out there — I’m not sure what route she took, but she was on the back roads, not even on the main roads,” Chase said.
When Lee was checked into the emergency room, her core temperature was 26 C, Chase said. She was so “delirious” that she didn’t resist medical attention, he said.
Lee was diagnosed with hypothermia, which happens when body temperature falls below 35 C.
He said Lee has since been recovering, resting at Scarborough General hospital on Thursday with a normal body temperature. She’s spent most of the day being thoroughly checked by doctors, he added.
Now the family is focused on getting Lee back in good health, and getting her proper care.
Chase said he hopes Lee’s story raises awareness about Alzheimer’s and its effects. Lee’s family had tried getting her into a care facility but were faced with extensive waiting lists, he said.
Toronto police spokesperson David Hopkinson said police deal with about 4,000 to 7,000 reports of missing persons each year. The majority are found alive and well.
“We do have lot of people who have dementia … that maybe wander away or get lost,” he said.
Safety is a key concern once a patient is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which can affect a host of cognitive functions such as memory, said Dr. Howard Chertkow, chair in cognitive neurology and innovation and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.
Groups like Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation have been pioneering new solutions, like GPS monitors, he said.
More than 747,000 Canadian’s are living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Chertkow said Canada’s investment in dementia research is trailing places like the U.S., Britain and Australia.
Last year, the government passed Bill C-233 which established the framework for a national Alzheimer’s disease strategy, something Chertkow hopes will spark increased investment in research, care and tax credits for tech-tools.
“These are all things that could be going a lot faster,” he said.
Premila D’Sa is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @premila_dsa
Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: email@example.com