As children, we often view our grandparents as our best friends, biggest role models and seemingly invincible superheroes. We lost my grandpa to cancer when I was young. My grandma, Rosemary, lost her sweetheart, best friend and love of her life too soon. She learned to become fiercely independent, active and a social butterfly. We had weekly dinners at her house after my piano lessons, she vacationed with us and she and I spent many weekends together seeing movies, shopping and having lunch. Sleepovers at her house remain some of my favorite childhood memories.
Rosemary was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease (PD) in the spring of 2009, shortly after having a new house built and everything that comes along with it: saying goodbye to the house she raised her children in, and embarking on the adventure of picking out flooring, furnishings and appliances. I knew Parkinson's was a movement disorder that commonly manifested itself in the form of resting tremor and that it had no cure, but beyond that I knew very little. Shortly before I left for college, my grandma and I had a long conversation about my goal to pursue a degree in neuroscience and ultimately become a physician or a scientist. Having majored in biology herself, she was so excited and proud of me. I couldn't wait to update her on everything I was doing in school, consult her when it got overwhelming and celebrate my successes.
That December, she was no longer able to live on her own. Parkinson's disease manifests itself differently in every patient: symptoms present and progress at different rates and responses to medications vary greatly, often with nasty side effects. Within a few short years, I learned that Parkinson's and dementia can go hand in hand. Her speech became fragmented and conversations became difficult. A "good day" started out as having a relatively normal 15-minute conversation, to understanding a sentence, to her eyes lighting up when I walked in the room – an indication that she still knew who I was.
I entered graduate school four years after her diagnosis to pursue a PhD in neuroscience with a focus on Parkinson's disease. Those conversations about my research and the ups and downs of graduate school were instead a monologue of myself updating her. Sometimes she could cover up with vague sentences, other times I just had to nod my head to her responses like I understood what she said. I didn't know if she understood me nor could she respond, both of which frustrated her.
My grandmother passed away shortly before Christmas in 2014. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't miss her. While I am at peace knowing that she isn't suffering anymore, it constantly nags me that there is no adequate long-term, disease-modifying treatment for Parkinson’s. It motivates me every day as a scientist to help answer the many lingering questions that remain about Parkinson’s and to help develop better treatments for people living with the disease. For the 7-10 million people living with Parkinson’s and their loved ones – we’re working hard to find an answer.
In May I will be running my first half marathon for the National Parkinson Foundation’s Team Hope™ to support Parkinson's research and awareness. Please join me in my run for Rose or consider supporting me by making a donation to my Team Hope™ page.