Late, legendary coach's legacy still growing with Pat Summitt Clinic

Reflecting on Pat Summitt's legacy (2:23)

ESPN's Mechelle Voepel talks to Paul Finebaum about the life of legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. (2:23)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Much of Pat Summitt's life's work as a basketball legend was centered at Thompson-Boling Arena. The court is named after her, and the many great moments she shared with her Lady Vols and Tennessee fans still seem to linger in the air here, such was Summitt's aura.

But a whole other part of her legacy is in a brick building 2.6 miles away at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

The Pat Summitt Clinic, which opened in January, is a state-of-the-art facility to provide care for Alzheimer's patients. To visit here or donate is akin to joining what will be, in fact, the biggest of all of Pat's teams: Those who fight this disease themselves, those who care for them, and those trying to find a cure.

Summitt, who was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type in 2011, passed away last June 28, just two weeks after her 64th birthday. Her illness and death were devastating not just to Tennessee, but the entire women's basketball community and women's collegiate athletics, which had a no more respected or influential figure than Summitt.

A year later, the grief remains. It always will, both for those closest to her and to all those she inspired. But something else also persists: the famous Summitt resolve.

"Pat is that kind of person who can keep making an impact even after she's passed," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who was Summitt's assistant for 27 seasons. "I think that's her power, and shows the love everyone had for her. She would be glad she's continuing to bring awareness to Alzheimer's.

"When she was diagnosed, she put it out there, and she continued to live her life. She was brave enough to say, 'I'm going to try to beat this,' and she genuinely thought that."

As much as Summitt is missed, there is solace to be taken in how quickly and profoundly she has already had an impact on Alzheimer's treatment and research.

"People are passionate about supporting our cause, because of the cause itself and because they're aware of what a serious health crisis it is," said Patrick Wade, executive director of the Pat Summitt Foundation. "Almost everyone is touched by this disease one way or another.

"But because it's Pat's foundation, it specifically motivates many of our donors to give as a way of honoring her and thanking her, and recognizing her for the leader she was."

UT's hospital has six "centers of excellence," one of which is the Brain and Spine Institute, which includes Alzheimer's treatment. Now, with funding help from the Pat Summitt Foundation, there is this clinic specifically for Alzheimer's patients and their families.

The Pat Summitt Clinic has its own identity and office space. With photos of Summitt and her "Definite Dozen" principles of success listed on one wall, and entire conference room filled with more images of her, there is a feel -- in a very positive, upbeat way -- of it being just a little like an athletics office.

Throughout it are shades of purple and orange, the foundation's colors. The waiting area is structured in such a way to provide intimacy and safety, and a large aquarium on one wall provides a soothing presence.

And in the examination rooms, everything from the comfortable, low-to-the ground, accessible exam chairs to the adjustable lighting and music is part of an effort to make patients feel as at ease as possible.

The Pat Summitt Clinic currently cares for about 3,000 patients, a figure likely to double within just a few years. The clinic was built with that expectation in mind. Dr. Roberto Fernandez, who worked in Alzheimer's care and research previously at the University of Rochester and the University of Virginia before coming to Knoxville in January, is the medical director.

"It was a privilege to join the clinic," Fernandez said. "Not just because of building the infrastructure in a such a short amount of time, but the support of the community, the resources we've received. It's been remarkable. That speaks to Pat's spirit and her vision, her driving force.

"I say she gave a voice to those who maybe didn't have a voice because she was so visible and powerful. By coming out very courageously and talking about it, she empowered those who don't have the same platform."

Patient care, providing support to caregivers, raising awareness about the disease and research are all missions of the clinic.

"We are part of a very large national and international trial for one type of drug that seems to be promising," Fernandez said. "We have other trials we're looking at. But we want to go beyond that: We want to cover the entire spectrum of research.

Vision is one area that Fernandez has specialized in.

"I look at how Alzheimer's affects visual perception, and how that impacts a person's ability to navigate, to find their way around," Fernandez said. "A patient with Alzheimer's tends to get lost or disoriented, which affects their ability to do things.

"This will tell us more about the disease process. And the more we learn, the more likely we are to find effective treatments."

Helping caregivers of those affected by Alzheimer's is just as critical.

"Particularly with diseases where you don't yet have a way of truly slowing down the process or curing the disease, you focus a lot on quality of life," Fernandez said. "Teach the family about the condition, what to expect, and how to plan ahead for different stages. It really makes a difference -- certainly for the patient.

"Another important aspect is community outreach and education. We have the Summitt Series, lectures and discussions where people can learn more about Alzheimer's and other related disorders. We also are looking to expand with care-coordinator programs that provide support also outside the clinic."

"Pat is that kind of person who can keep making an impact even after she's passed. I think that's her power. ... She would be glad she's continuing to bring awareness to Alzheimer's." Holly Warlick on Pat Summitt

The Pat Summitt Foundation's No. 1 priority is the clinic, and it also awards other grants. It's a fund of the East Tennessee Foundation, which has benefited citizens in 25 counties in that part of the state for three decades.

Fundraising is the lifeblood of the Summitt foundation, and something that Wade and his team work on every day.

"The women's basketball community has been the strongest network for us," Wade said. "The SEC launched 'We Back Pat Week' in 2012, and they made a $100,000 gift then as well. It's spread all over the country. There was even a team in Brazil this year that participated.

"We take it as a responsibility of ours to make sure that we're not only growing and succeeding, but doing it in a way that Pat Summitt would want it to be done."

There is no getting around the sadness, worry and fear that come with an Alzheimer's diagnosis. But having a multidimensional facility like this is a huge asset to not just the Knoxville community, but the surrounding area. And having a personality like Summitt's attached to this clinic also helps.

"Just looking at the statistics is daunting," Fernandez said. "Not only how many people are suffering from Alzheimer's currently, but how much it's going to explode in the coming decades. It's going to have tremendous public-health implications.

"Whenever you have a figure like Pat Summitt -- someone people admired, a vibrant powerful, incredible person -- face the disease, it gives people a connection to her and her strength. A lot of our patients will mention that, knowing she shared the same struggles."