Call Our HELPLINE: 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636)

Rae Ann Norell

At 15, I fell in love with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony when I first played it at a music camp in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The slow movement is so beautiful it often brings me to tears. Forty-six years later, it was that same Beethoven symphony that brought me to tears for another reason. I had played violin in the Boise Philharmonic for 36 years, and one night at rehearsal, I was having a difficult time managing a fast, complex rhythm. My bow arm felt stiff.

About one month prior I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). I first noticed a slight tremor in my right hand around 2003. My mother had a hand tremor in her later years, and she did not have PD, so I figured I had a benign tremor. However, in 2009 I noticed that my right arm didn’t swing when I walked. I searched the internet and read that this can be a sign of PD. I saw a neurologist who took my history, did some movement tests, and referred me for an MRI to rule out stroke or a tumor. At my follow-up appointment he diagnosed me with PD. I took the pronouncement in stride.

Five years prior to my diagnosis my son died at the age of 24. I said to my doctor, “I can handle this — nothing is as difficult as losing a child.” He started me on Requip. My handwriting, which had become tiny, almost immediately returned to normal. The symphony director was understanding when I requested two months leave to see if my new meds would help my arm stiffness. They did. I resumed playing in the symphony, but tried to keep the diagnosis from colleagues. I thought, “What if people stop referring students to me because they know I have PD?” I also tried to hide my tremor at my “day job” as a clinical social worker. I worried needlessly. Living with the secret was worse than just telling people.

Two years later I retired from the Philharmonic. Sinemet was added to my Requip, which significantly improved my playing, although not quite up to the level of my pre-PD days. I now realize I could have stayed in the symphony longer. However, since then I’ve joined two community orchestras, have taken on the viola as well as violin and take harp lessons — anything to help hand-motor coordination. I also play in two string quartets, and have 20 violin and viola students.

My husband and I have enjoyed five 2,000-mile road trips on our Honda Goldwing motorcycle, myself as the passenger. We stop frequently to stretch. Howard says when I can’t climb onto the bike anymore or if I experience balance issues, he will convert our motorcycle to a trike (three wheels) so I can still enjoy road trips. Life is good. I have spoken to several local PD groups about managing stress and living well with PD. I’ve published an award-winning book about my son’s life and his world-wide kayaking adventures. In the book I also share my grief journey. I give workshops on surviving adversity: recovery and resilience after grief and loss.

Granted, PD is not a diagnosis we planned on, but it doesn’t mean that a person with PD has to live a life devoid of fulfillment. We may have to modify our previous way of doing things and/or a career or we may need to find new hobbies that are more suited to our symptoms.

Find a good doctor who specializes in movement disorders, find the meds that work best for you, exercise regularly and get good nutrition. But most of all, associate with positive people and keep a positive attitude. There is hope and person with PD can continue to live a rich life.

mail icon

Subscribe to get the latest news on treatments, research and other updates.