Doctors Say Father of 4 Has Just Months to Live After Contracting Human Form of Mad Cow Disease

Tony Gibson always had a great memory.

The doting father of four was healthy and active, his wife, Danielle Gibson, tells PEOPLE — and had “the best memory of anyone” she’s ever met. So, she was surprised last December when Tony began forgetting small things.

“He said, ‘My memory is gone. My short-term memory is gone,’ ” Danielle says of her husband, 33. “He would get lost going to the grocery store. He had a doctor’s appointment one day and it was right up the road from us … he never came home that night.” She says she got a call the next day from police saying they had found Tony “confused” at the airport, and he was unsure how he got there.

“I wondered, ‘What is causing this man to be like this?’ I took care of him, but his decline was so rapid. Each week it would get dramatically worse. I had to label our bedrooms, bathrooms in our home. It got to a point where it was like a psychosis. It was unreal. It was scary,” the 31-year-old says.

The Tennessee couple consulted local doctors who thought he may have dementia. But when he developed paranoia and began hallucinating, Danielle knew she needed to do more.

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So, she took him to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where, after about a month of testing, doctors diagnosed Tony in March with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease — which doctors have called the human form of mad cow disease. They do not know how he contracted it.

“I have never been so devastated,” Danielle tells PEOPLE. “I couldn’t believe it. I never expected something like this, never even heard of it. They gave him a maximum of six months to a year. He’s not in good condition at all, but he’s still hanging on.”

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) is a rare, fatal brain disorder that affects about 320 people in the United States each year. Although certain treatments can help support patients with CJD), nothing has been proven to stop its progression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The “disease is rapidly progressive and always fatal,” according to the CDC.

Danielle says doctors gave Tony steroids as part of his treatment, but his condition has only gotten worse. He now lives in an assisted living facility one hour from the family’s home outside Nashville. Danielle visits him several times a week.

“My older kids, they hurt of it. My little babies, thank God they’re not old enough to really know,” Danielle says of the couple’s children, two sets of twins aged 11 and 1-year-old. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life. I have to continue to fight for him and push on for my babies.

Over the last year, Tony has lost his job and most of his mobility.

“I hate the fact that I can’t take care of him. I can’t lift him to change his diaper. This is like a nightmare that I can’t wake up from,” Danielle tells PEOPLE.

“If God was not in my life and I didn’t know that He has a purpose for everything … I couldn’t make it through this. I have to hold on to that. I see my husband’s eyes when I look at my babies. When he still had his voice, he begged me, he said, ‘I don’t feel like I’m gonna be alive much longer. Please promise me you’ll always take care of our babies.’ “

Gibson has set up a GoFundMe page to help cover medical expenses.

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