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CHEVERLY, Md. (WUSA) -- When Rushern Baker became Prince George's County Executive, he set out to clean up and steer the county in a new direction. It was a mammoth task, made all the more difficult by a painful family struggle.

Earlier this year, Baker, shared the news that his wife - Christa - had Early Onset Dementia.

He talked with Nine News anchor Lesli Foster in an emotional interview.

Baker says his family wasn't prepared for this diagnosis when Christa was just 48. It was not the kind of turning point he expected after she helped him finally achieve his political dream.

"And the charter, and the laws, of Prince George's County."

Rushern Baker remembers the day he took the oath of office. His wife does not.

"This is something that couldn't happen today. In that she fully understands what's going on, " says Baker of that moment.

It's a now a distant memory for Baker's wife, Christa. The county's first lady toiled beside her husband for eight years to get the voters there to see, what she always knew.

"At any moment in my life when I was feeling down about my abilities, and whether in fact I was gonna make it, she never doubted," says Baker.

Baker looked back fondly at pictures of when they first married, 26 years ago. They were young, in love, with a vast future ahead of them. He was the politician. She found her voice in policy.

"This was the beginning of our journey together ..."

A journey, that placed, Christa, or Cis, as her friends and family call her - front and center as the brains behind the Baker political machine.

"She wrote all my speeches. She did, designed every piece of literature that we put out in the first campaign," says Baker.

But the family noticed cracks in her powerhouse foundation before the 2010 campaign. The woman with the brilliant mind and quick wit had started going to a place that they couldn't quite reach. So, Baker took Cis to have some tests.

"She," Baker says voice cracking, "She couldn't ah, answer the questions. She couldn't tell how old her kids were," he recallled.

Then, the devastating diagnosis: Early Onset Dementia. And a difficult conversation with their children.

"The first question was is she going to get better. And, I said, no, she's not going to get better. In fact, she's going to get worse."

Only the family and some close friends knew about Cis. Baker was slowly coming to accept that his political and life partner was slipping away.

"I remember going through the struggles of the first year and I'd come home and I'd say Cis, this, this and this. And, she'd look at me and say, 'oh honey.' And that would be it, " says Baker. "And, I'd literally start crying because I'd just hink, you know, God if she were herself, she'd be so good."

After a year of trying to manage her care on their own, the family decided to share their painful new normal.

"The next thing I knew, I had a list of sorority sisters, friends from Howard, who were calling saying we'll take this day," says Baker.

"This is the reunion at my house. Right here. This is when I knew something was up," says Dr. Debra Holly Ford, sorority sister and dear friend to Cis and Baker.

These are just a few of Cis' Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters. Their bond began more than 30 years ago at Howard University. Now, this sisterhood has formed a protective circle around the devoted wife, mother, attorney and education advocate.

Just as they did years ago, they've pledged to be their sisters keeper.

"We're here because Cissy has done so much for all of us. And, I don't care what it is, we're going to drop whatever we're doing to help out," says Dr. Ford.

And, they do. Many come from across the country to sit with Cis, while County Executive Baker carries out his duties.

One Soror, friend, and head of the county Health Department, Pam Creekmur, recalled one funny time together.

"The highlight of Monday was that she was prancing around in my heels. I had taken them off. And, it's weird what makes you, okay she's there. Because of the way she was walking in those heels. It was Cis," says Creekmur.

This extended family of caregivers is determined to help Baker keep the promise to the citizens of Prince George's County - and to his wife - tomake the county a better place.

"You all don't know what kind of first lady this county was going to have, you just don't know, "says one of Cis' sorority sisters, Marcita Bentley-Pinkston.

"I know it's like, well gosh, she sounds like she's too good to be true. She was ..." says Dr. Ford. Then, they all chime in: "She is."

They call her virtuous. Say she'd always have time for them. And, extolled how amazed at her apparent ability to do it all. She worked. Took care of the family. Cooked. Handled the family finances. And, never missed a beat.

Even with a village of support, there are still times when being the chief caregiver has its challenges. During the gaming debate, Baker had to make some high level meetings with the Governor and others in Annapolis, with little notice.

"I said, I have exactly two hours. And, here's the reason. I told the Speaker, my wife's at home, I have no one who can care for her, and I need to get back. So that kinda pull ..." says Baker.

"They care for each other ina way that was truly admirable. And, that has done nothing but grow, " says Cis' line sister, Shannon Gundy.

That love, and the support of family, friends and people all around the county is what keeps Baker going. He says he plans to make a run for another term and continue the journey he and Cis started together.

"What I want people to know is that anything they see, and they think I do a good job, it's because of her. If I mess up, that's me," Baker laughs.

There are some signs that the Baker family noticed in Cis before her diagnosis. She had forgotten to pay bills, she'd gotten lost driving from familiar places, and couldn't hold or follow a conversation with others.

Baker and his three children hope that if you're going through this, that you will seek out help because he's learned you can't do it on your own.

He's found the Alzheimer's Association to be particularly helpful. And, Baker wonders whether Cis knew something about her own situation. She had made several donations to the organizations that Baker only learned about after taking over the family finances.

While Cis does have a full time caregiver during the week, friends, family, and deep connections through their Alma Mater, Howard University, help them whenever they need additional support.

And, the County Executive, hopes that by going public, other families will seek out resources.

Learn more about the signs of Early Onset Dementia. And for additional support, the Alzheimer's Association says they have a free 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-272-3900. This line can translate support into 140 languages.

The Alzheimer's Association has a program called Trial Match. It's designed to help families locate and participate in clinical trials to learn more about how the disease affects the brain.

To find out how to enroll, call the Alzheimer's Association Helpline at 1-800-272-3900. Press 1 for Trial Match, after the voice prompt. Or, consult www.alz.org and click on the research link on the home page.

Written by Lesli Foster & Stephanie Wilson
9News & wusa9.com

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