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- July 15, 1996
- Vol. 46
- No. 3
A Sense of Purpose
Inspired by a Sister's Schizophrenia, a Researcher Seeks the Illness's Cause
Annick's physical wounds were only superficial, but her devastating psychiatric disorder—chronic schizophrenia, which affects nearly a million Americans—remains incurable and at the time was largely unbeatable. After her diagnosis the following year, she hallucinated often, was tormented by inner voices and ran away from home dozens of times. "When I learned she had schizophrenia, I almost felt relieved that her problem had a name," says a family friend. Yet Annick, now 34, hasn't struggled alone: Her entire family has been transformed by her disease. Meggin, 31, is a neuropsychiatry research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Brother John, 35, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical executive who is married and has a 2-year-old daughter, credits his interest in medicine to his early exposure to Annick's illness. And her parents—retired oil executive Hal Hollister, 65, and his homemaker wife, Patsy, 63—have become prominent mental-health advocates. "They're an extraordinary family," says Constance Lieber, president of the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression. "[They] have turned adversity into something positive."
None more so than Meggin, who has devoted herself to finding the cause of her sister's disease. Last January she published the findings of a two-year study that could lead to a clearer understanding of how schizophrenia develops in the brain of a fetus. Meggin won a $60,000 NARSAD Young Investigator award last April for her work, but her motivation, she says, has far more to do with family ties: "It's too late to rewire Annick's brain. It's too late to erase the 15 years of hell Annick had to go through. But it's not too late to prevent it from happening to someone 20 years from now."
As a child, Meggin Hollister was captivated by her blonde, olive-skinned older sister, who could skillfully draw paper dolls, then fit them with mod skirts and go-go boots. "I would follow her around like a puppy," she says. Annick's first symptoms passed for adolescent rebellion. (Schizophrenics are often diagnosed during their teens and 20s.) In 1968, Hal's job as a sales executive for an oil-field-equipment company had taken the family from Europe (where Annick and Meggin were born) to Houston. There, Annick began flatly refusing to obey her parents. "We had trouble getting her to clean her room, so we started deducting from her allowance," says Hal. Soon there was no more allowance to deduct. When Patsy and Hal consulted a pediatrician, they were told that Annick—still a good student and an eager ballet dancer—would outgrow her stubbornness.
She never did. After the Hollisters relocated to a 7½-acre ranch in the Los Angeles suburb of La Habra Heights in 1973, Annick began cutting class at Lowell High School to hitchhike to the beach, hang out with older boys and smoke marijuana. "At that point we weren't thinking mental illness," says Patsy. "We just thought she was out of control." Though only a sophomore, Annick refused to attend school. After she attempted suicide that Halloween, her parents briefly checked her into a psychiatric hospital.
When Annick was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978, psychiatrists could neither explain the disease nor treat it effectively with drugs. For eight years, Annick continued to live at home under the care of doctors, but her behavior was highly unpredictable. "If she were taking her medication regularly, it wasn't as obvious," says Meggin. "At other times she might be sitting in front of a static TV screen...or talking about how she was Nature Lady and taking her clothes off." Strangers were often startled by Annick or, worse, tried to take advantage of her. Several times she suddenly left home only to turn up weeks later, beaten and emaciated, in Texas or Utah.
For her family, the spectacle of Annick's decline stirred emotions ranging from grief to anger. Her psychotic ranting became so violent that the Hollisters were forced to call the police. "There were times when I was scared to death of her," Meggin confesses. "I can remember nights when I'd lock my [bedroom] door because I could wake up and she'd be hovering, just sort of standing there. It was a feeling of unpredictability."
Mostly, though, the Hollisters learned to adapt. "John was born a happy fellow, bright, fun," says Patsy. "Meggin was more introverted. She knew our hands were full." At school, Meggin found a means to satisfy her curiosity about the disease that had gripped Annick's life. For a senior science term paper on schizophrenia, she pored over college-level biochemistry books, and by the time she went to the University of Southern California in 1983, she considered only one major: psychology. "The subject matter turned me on," she explains, Then, as a USC graduate student in 1993, Meggin decided to test a hunch that incompatibility between Rh-negative mothers and their Rh-positive fetuses might be a factor in causing schizophrenia. Her hypothesis was that the mother produces antibodies to attack the foreign blood antigens, which, when coupled with a genetic predisposition, may affect the baby's brain development. (John and Meggin share their mother's negative blood type, but Annick was born A-positive. Since 1968, drugs have been routinely used to stop production of such antibodies in pregnant women.) Meggin analyzed data on 1,867 births in Denmark, and her hunch paid off; she's now working to confirm her findings. Says Dr. Richard Wyatt, chief of neuropsychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington: "To the degree that [her work] is reproducible, it opens up a new pathway of study."
Ironically, Meggin's 10- to 12-hour workdays in her Philadelphia lab mean she can only occasionally visit her sister, who has lived at a Los Angeles-area board-and-care apartment complex since 1986. Although Annick's behavior and thoughts are still profoundly erratic, she manages to work at the Los Angeles Zoo as a clerical volunteer. Seeing the solace that Annick's artistic outlets have brought her, her parents founded NARSAD Artworks in 1989 to reproduce and sell artwork by the mentally ill, including their daughter. (The Artworks number: 800-607-2599). "You always see your kids growing up and finding a path...that would give something back to the world," says Patsy. "Annick has done that. She gave us the inspiration for Artworks, and she certainly inspired Meggin's profession. And most important, she's beginning to have pleasure in life."
LIZ MCNEIL in Philadelphia and SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Los Angeles
- Liz McNeil,
- Susan Christian Goulding.
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