Wild's Dowell, family battle against the slowest of killers

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2014 - 9:24 PM
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The Wild’s Jake Dowell faces a vital career year on the ice, but it’s nothing compared to concerns he grapples with away from the rink. His father, John, and brother, Luke, both have Huntington’s disease, a debilitating neurological disorder that is genetic. Jake has yet to be tested for it.

Photo: Mike Munden •Associated Press,

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-- Jake Dowell shows up to the Wild locker room every day and sits in a far corner. As he joins his teammates and gets ready for practice, you’d never know the incredible weight he shoulders.

“Sometimes … you get choked up by the thought of what he’s going through,” coach Mike Yeo said.

Dowell’s father and only brother are dying. They’re both in the final stages of Huntington’s disease, a neurological disorder that over the course of a decade or more debilitates a person physically and cognitively until they die.

There is a 50-50 chance that Dowell, 28, a Wild checker who has played 156 NHL games, has inherited the same gene. In the next year or two, Dowell plans to go with his wife, Carly, and his champion of a mother, Vicki, to have a blood test and learn what his future holds.

The family’s harrowing story will be featured on ESPN’s newsmagazine program “E:60” at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“Absolutely, I’m scared,” Dowell said. “It scares the heck out of me to look at my dad and brother and think that potentially one day could be me. I try to be realistic about it, but I also have kind of gone numb to the whole thing. I don’t get really emotional about it anymore.”

Symptoms of Huntington’s disease typically manifest themselves in the mid- to late-30s and 40s.

Dowell’s father, John, 58, who used to own a collection agency and played college football at Wis.-Eau Claire, was diagnosed 11 years ago. Dowell’s brother, Luke, is only 30.

There is a 24-hour assisted-living house in Menomonie, Wis., owned by a husband and wife nurse team. John and Luke are two of the four patients.

“We put my dad on a feeding tube this past summer,” Dowell said. “But now, he’s starting to get delusional. Dementia’s kicked in. He can’t do anything for himself. You can’t understand him. He used to be a big man. Now he’s dwindled down.

“My brother had an early onset in high school. It’s really rare. He is bipolar and schizophrenic. If I go see him, I’ll say hi and he’ll give me a hug and he’s right back into just talking to himself, just kind of in a trance and he’ll just stare in the distance. He’s still walking, but not very well. He’s extremely skinny. He’s lost his teeth.

“Some days, it’s harder to say who’s in worse shape because my dad and brother have completely different stuff going on.”

Uncertain future

Huntington’s disease is hereditary, and the family has traced it back to Dowell’s paternal grandfather. John’s father committed suicide when John was a child.

“A lot of people with this disease commit suicide,” Dowell said. “Depression is a part of it. You don’t want to be helpless. It’s a long, drawn-out thing. It’s not like the late stages of cancer. It’s something that slowly kills you. It’s an awful decade or more process.

“I either have the gene or I don’t. I just haven’t needed to know yet.”

That’s because the Dowells haven’t tried to have children. But they want to, so they need to know if Dowell has the gene; if he does, there’s a 50-50 chance their children would inherit it.

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