Personal Stories

The Man from Mars

Sharon Kha

George Mitchell is from Mars, but he has traveled to Arizona to change his brain. He might as well been from an alien planet instead of Mars, Pennsylvania. Yellow blooms as big as teacups perched on a prickly pear cactus and the shadows on the mountains turned from garnet to lavender in the morning light. George didn’t see any of it as he hurried toward the trailhead. In the still morning air he could hear a voice call, “Power Up.”

Five years ago, George’s doctor told him his high blood pressure medicine was causing the small twitch in his index finger. The day his doctor told him he had Parkinson’s, however, he felt like he had been hit over the head by a two by four. He managed to tell his wife without crying, but when his father – who also had Parkinson’s – apologized for giving George the Parkinson’s gene, George couldn’t stop the tears.

But on this Arizona morning, George joined 42 other people with Parkinson’s who were clustered around the railroad. “Shoulders BACK,” called Becky. Energy flowed from her and crackled in the cool air. The Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery (PWR!) Retreat was based solidly on ten years of research on the effects of exercise on Parkinson’s. Gripping walking sticks that resembled ski poles, the group of people with Parkinson’s and the caregivers started down the trail that began their journey.

Becky G. Farley, PhD, MS, PT, knows that exercise is about more than fitness is a physiological tool that encourages the body’s own endogenous brain repair mechanisms. “Exercise promotes brain health and, thereby, may protect the remaining viable dopamine neurons,” she said. Exercise, she said, may at the very least slow motor deterioration in patients with Parkinson’s disease, and, if started early enough, may be able to modify disease progression.

Ohio woman Elizabeth Grover didn’t need to be told that she should exercise. She works with a trainer and goes to yoga and Tai Chi and exercises ten or twelve hours a week. After 14 years of living with Parkinson’s, her medicines aren’t working as well and her gait is problematic. It’s hard to stay motivated.

“It is not enough to simply exercise when you have a neurodegenerative disease,” said Dr. Farley. “You have to target your specific problems with intensive, repetitive practice. That includes feedback to help you pay attention to critical aspects of the exercises.”

During the weeklong retreat, Elizabeth could see that she was improving, and that was an unusual feeling. “When you have Parkinson’s, you don’t talk about improving; you talk about degenerating,” she said. “The idea that you can improve gives you hope, and hope gives you confidence.”

Sally Michaels, Chief Operating Officer for PWR! Retreat says four “E’s” characterize the retreat: Exercise, Empowerment, Education, Enrichment. Every day, the 43 people with Parkinson’s exercised for two to three hours and spent afternoons listening to movement disorder specialists, learning stress management options or more information on their disease. They had access to treadmills, boxing, and suspension equipment that allowed them to exercise without the feat of falling. The ratio of staff to attendees was 1:3.5, so there was plenty of help available. There was a spate track for the 29 caregivers who attended, and for most people, the camaraderie that developed from spending the week with others who shared the challenges of Parkinson’s was one of the highlights.

Janice Lubin is also from Ohio. Gary, her husband, saw positive changes in Janice. “She was so excited to find an exercise program that had some clinical background to it. It wasn’t just someone saying, ‘Here try this; it might work.’ The area of the brain that makes dopamine isn’t functioning, but these exercises, if done properly, can require the brain so that other parts of the brain pick up the function.” The tendency for people with Parkinson’s is to avoid activities that are hard to do, or to give in to your apathy. They should be doing the exact opposite – spending even MORE time practicing difficult things.”

At the end of the week, Janice went home thinking, “There IS something I can do about Parkinson’s.” George Mitchell said his attitude changed. Instead of thinking he couldn’t exercise because he had Parkinson’s, he realized that it was even more important to exercise.

For information about how you can be one of the people at the retreat in the spring of 2013, log on to www.pwr4life.org and join the mailing list or call Sally Michaels at (520) 270-9990/ sally@pwr4life.org. She can also tell you about the Model NeuroFitness Center of Excellence for Parkinson Exercise, the PWR! Gym, in Tucson, AZ.


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