My journey with Parkinson’s disease (PD) started when I was a young combat Marine in the dense jungles of Vietnam. We could hear the hum of the low flying planes above the insect drone and see the long vapor trails that followed them. The planes were delivering death and illness by dispensing the herbicidal poison innocuously code named Agent Orange.
Agent Orange is one of the most toxic substances on earth because it contains dioxin toxin made by Monsanto; remember their ironic, iconic slogan: ‘better living through chemistry?’ The results of my exposure to this toxin would become apparent decades later.
Agent Orange initiated a progression of brain-cell death that took 40 years to manifest as PD starting with tremors in my left hand and foot. By the time I climbed out of denial, I had more symptoms.
I finally went to the neurologist who observed me shuffling down the hall and said, “You have Parkinson’s.” Because my exposure to Agent Orange was service connected and presumably the cause of my PD, I was able to get care from the VA. I was very down about the diagnosis. Life was gray and great chunks of time went missing.
After a couple years of depression the colors squeezed out of every moment, I picked myself up and started to move. I took charge of my PD and, in addition to my medication, I started a regimen of alternative treatments: Tai Chi for balance, yoga and acupuncture for stiffness, and biking and walking for general health. Meditation put me back in touch with the colors and music of the world. My intention was to slow the inevitable symptom progression of PD, a chronic, degenerative, and brutal disease. I just wanted to feel normal. To do so meant even more radical action.
I went to India for a detoxifying cleanse. The protocol used there was ancient. PD-like symptoms were recognized in India more than a millennium ago. This was a very difficult trip but I desperately wanted to improve the quality of my life.
Five years later I was not improved, nor was I terribly worse and I still was not on L-Dopa. In a counterintuitive way this was progress. Admittedly this is an unscientific conclusion, but I did have enough energy to write a book about my war experience: “A Hellish Place of Angels.” With the medicine and the alternative treatments, my health seemed to degenerate at a slower rate. Now I have more good days than bad days.
The PD prevents me from ever returning to my previously fast paced life. Perhaps this is for the best.
In my experience the varied treatments played a big role in my quest to approach feeling normal again even if it is a new normal.
Veterans who develop Parkinson’s disease and were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service are eligible to receive VA healthcare (including a free Agent Orange registry health exam) and disability compensation. For more information on the various benefits programs available to veterans of the U.S. military, visit CareMAP.