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FEATURE - September 2015
How to be Happy with a Challenge Called Parkinson’s Disease
By Suzette Scholtes
Sally Sweeney glazes a ham for her evening company. She moves as graceful as a dancer in the kitchen she designed. She shows me the honey-comb spice holder where one may read the label face up of every spice and herb. “I love this glaze,” she said. She paints on the ginger ale, clove, and mustard glaze as aromas of sweet and salty fill the room. It’s late on a Friday afternoon as we begin our interview on how she has managed Parkinson’s disease for 20 years. “TGIF!” she announced. “Let’s split a bottle of beer, shall we?”
“I don’t know why I drink this premium beer!” Sally said. “PD weakened my taste buds.” I sip my micro brew with its tangy flavor as she laughs at her own joke. “My guests and family enjoy it and that makes me happy.”
This degenerative disease that affects Sally and the famous actor Michael J. Fox results from the death of neurons in the brain that produce dopamine. Insufficient amounts of this neurotransmitter may create challenges with balance, breathing, movement, speaking and the shakes made known by PD, both internal and external. The symptoms are unique to each person. Sally has avoided some common symptoms such as imbalance, anxiety and depression, loss of memory, and/or hallucinations or use of a cane or wheel chair.
“I’m blessed all my life with a disposition to look at things on the bright side,” Sally said. “I’m drawn to the light like a bird to a garden.”
Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease has poured over 14 million dollars into research since 2000 yet scientists do not know the cause yet. Diagnosis most often occurs around age 60 with only as few as 7% suffering early onset such as Fox when he was diagnosed at age 30 in 1991.
As many as one million Americans live with PD, (Parkinson’s Foundation 2015 website) which is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Statistics claim approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with PD each year and a 1000’s of cases remain undetected. Worldwide, the number climbs to 10 million.
“Of course my original diagnosis in 1995 was a blow.” Sally said. “I didn’t want my family feeling sorry for me so I got busy.” At that time two of her teenagers were living at home and the two older ones were in college. “They were frightened for me. I didn’t want them to worry or feel sad for me.”
Sally always enjoyed a healthy diet. “I just ate what I knew was good for me for both of my health and my liking,” she said. She walked daily. She found acupuncture, massage therapy, joined the PD support group. She founded her own business designing kitchens and baths. “I was no longer willing to wait in a show room for customers to find me,” she said. “So I found them.” Her business flourished.
“I am afraid of depression,” she shared, “So I do not allow myself to get too low. I think of all the things in my life which are so great and gratitude lifts me up. I’ll think of something I enjoy doing even a Sudoku puzzle or I draw a picture. I keep my mind focused.”
In 2006, Sally joined Kansas University’s first study on yoga’s effect upon Parkinson’s disease. She underwent physical exams, including blood samples, required for the study. “Yoga was my winning ticket!” Sally said. “My symptoms minimized as I enjoyed two classes a week. The Yoga School of Therapeutics teamed up with KU Med to lead yoga designed to ease symptoms. Participants practiced balance poses along with techniques to induce parasympathetic state (non flight or fight) claimed to help the brain release dopamine.
The published study revealed that participants improved range of motion, strength, posture, gait, balance, depression and quality of life scales, pulmonary function tests as well as improvement in vital signs and serum immune markers.
Down-to-earth Sally and her husband, Mike, built their lake house in Bonner Springs, Ks. just after her diagnosis. All halls and doors were built wide enough to meet handicap code. This home is on the market. They recently moved to a new home in order to be closer to the children and shorter drives for Sally’s weekly routines.
Sally sits tall in her red wing chair, chest lifted and shoulders square. Her figure is sleek. Her eyes sparkle. Her gait has slowed on her daily walks, yet she cooks, she cleans, she draws, and she spends time with her grandchildren. Her face glows with that patina of someone who is alive and vibrant.
Sally hands me an article from WEB MD. I read a quote from Angus Nairin, PhD, a researcher at Yale University who writes “We are getting closer to understanding PD. Our aim is to discover biomarkers to identify the illness earlier and find out how stem cells may be taught to be dopamine producing. Clinical trials are underway now for methods to slow or stop PD.”
'“We must never lose hope,” Sally said in a strong voice.” I believe I can do anything I want at my own pace.” Sally shared her secrets.
Believe you can find a way.
Never give up.
Learn meditation and yoga to foster strength and courage.
Recognize your limitations but do not allow them to define you.
Avoid arguing with the universe.
Accept what cannot be changed.
Each day seek peace.
“You know, Sally said, quoting Abraham Lincoln’s famous line, “Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
“This is my life. It is the only life I have. For me, this means worry or fear are a waste of my time. Now, how about a taste of my yummy ham?” She smiled as we made our way back to the kitchen.
Suzette Scholtes’ non-fiction writing won the prestigious “Writers Digest” award. Her passions are writing and yoga and she feels one needs a sense of humor for both. She founded The Yoga School of Therapeutics where she manages one of the regions prestige teacher training programs. 10400 W. 103rd Street,