Watching The Masters, Thinking About Parkinson’s

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Crocuses are a sure sign that Spring is on the way in Canada. Golf can’t be far behind. Photo Credit: The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2019

Kicking Back and Watching the 2019 Masters

Glued to my Chair

On April 14, 2019 I was glued to my chair in our family room watching Tiger Woods win his fifth Masters’ golf title and his 15th career victory in a “Major.” I certainly wasn’t alone as 18.3 million viewers joined me at the peak coverage time. According to Rob Schumacher of Golfweek USA Today Sports, a total of 37.2 million viewers worldwide watched either the live coverage or the replay. To put that into perspective the estimated total population of Canada in 2019 is 37.4 million.

These statistics do not tell a lie. There was tremendous interest in the final round of the Masters because Tiger had an excellent chance to win and a chance to repair many of the divots on his reputation. After all, 11 long years had passed since Tiger’s last victory in a major tournament – the U.S. Open in 2008 – and 19 years since he last won the Masters’ title. Over the past decade both his golf game and his personal life appeared to have gone south. Golf analysts, fanatics and duffers alike were of the opinion that it was extremely unlikely Tiger would return to his past glory.

I confess that I have never been a fan of Tiger Woods although I had to admit grudgingly to his superiority during his peak years. His ability to turn on the icy calmness; to fashion golf shots that left others staring in awe; to command his body and mind to work in sublime synchronicity; and to track down victory when victory seemed to be doing all it could to avoid him, was simply awesome. In the end it doesn’t much matter to Tiger whether I am a fan or not. He knows that when people say “Tiger” they are talking about him and no one else.

Tiger Had No Doubts

As I watched this 2019 version of the Masters it occurred to me that Tiger never doubted that he would win another title and the concrete evidence of that confidence, of his perseverance, commitment, dedication, work ethic, and psychological toughness was the long list of worthy golfers whose names lay strewn on the leaderboard under, not over or equal to, but beneath his name and score. In spite of the odds against him, Tiger conducted a clinic on how to play high-pressure golf at a level and intensity few of us can even begin to imagine.

I am no sports psychologist so it is difficult for me to conceive of the psychological toolkit that Tiger had to assemble and master such that his body and mind not only shared the same space but that each knew its own place. Over the last, lost decade Tiger has had to surround himself with family, golf professionals, physicians and surgeons, physiotherapists, sports psychologists, career advisors, and business/financial advisors, among others who all would contribute positively to his ultimate goals. Even for someone with abundant financial resources building a team is more difficult than it first appears. I have tremendous respect for Tiger’s ability to put those pieces together effectively.

I doubt that Tiger “wished” or “hoped” that he would win another Masters title and I would be surprised if he ever thought of it as a “fantasy”. Tiger might have imagined his victory but imagining (or visioning) is a technique many athlete’s use so that their movements are automatic, with consistency in the results. It is not the same as fantasizing. In a way, it is like the building and maintenance of neuro-pathways in neuroplasticity exercises for PwP.

Tiger’s Victory Was Not A Surprise … To Tiger

Tiger’s victory at Augusta was the culmination of a purposeful and deliberate process. He knew what his goal was and he knew what he had to do to get there. In other words, you have to have a plan if you are to achieve what most people think is impossible. And of course, you have to have to execute the shots to implement the plan. He did just that.

Where Tiger Woods’ career will go now is unknown but I am certain he has a plan … and not just a wish, a hope or a fantasy.

Diet, Exercise, and Attitude

There are many people who feel that Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP) can overcome this debilitating disease, can delay the advance of its symptom’s and stop its progression to more advanced stages; that diet and exercise, especially intense exercise, are the keys to defeating Parkinson’s. While I think it is true that exercise and diet are important for us to live well when we have Parkinson’s, I know that diet and exercise does not cure Parkinson’s and at this stage we don’t have any evidence that poor diet and/or lack of exercise play any role whatsoever in causing Parkinson’s.

Yet there are many people who will point to Tiger’s success and say that he is an exemplar of the Power of Positive Thinking. Note: the following sentence is to be read as if it is dripping with sarcasm, to wit: “So all you PwP out there who are feeling sorry for yourselves because you have Parkinson’s, lose the negative attitude, stop being depressed and get with the program – knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it!”

Of course, it is silly to think that Parkinson’s is in any way analogous to professional golf when it comes to individual motivation. PwP are not in competition with other PwP although we may compare notes about the progression of the disease in our bodies to its progression in others; and we may set personal bests in terms of our activities, etc. No, we are in competition against a disease within our bodies; a neurological disease that causes our physiological system to misinterpret signals from our brain resulting in all sorts of strange and unanticipated muscle movements, juiced up with a wide variety of non – motor symptoms to add to the challenge. For PwP the world is a giant obstacle course through which we must use our mental faculties to maneuver our bodies. Our brain and/or body can become dysfunctional at any time, with only a moment’s notice. [Some might say jokingly that this describes their golf game!]

This may leave you wondering: Why should I care about what Tiger does?

Lessons From Tiger’s Success

Are there any lessons for PwP to be found in Tiger’s story? We could just say that it is not relevant and move on but I don’t think we should be quickly dismissive of the situation. Let’s take a closer look with a critical eye for lessons to be learned in a select number of items. These insights may not always be obvious but are worthy of our attention nonetheless. Consider the following:

Determination

Just as Tiger has done, we must develop a steely determination so as not to be fazed by the challenge no matter the odds. We will have many little victories along the way as well as some profoundly troubling and unexpected setbacks. We rejoice in the former and learn how to adjust from the latter.

Realism

We must be realistic about both the trajectory of our Parkinson’s and the end result. If we put our heads in the sand we will set ourselves up for disappointment and failure. Knowing where we are going and being able to make necessary and appropriate adjustments is a large part of the game. It was realistic for Tiger to think he could win another Masters. It is not realistic to think that I can cure Parkinson’s by strenuous exercise alone but it is realistic to think that exercise will improve my quality of life while living with Parkinson’s.

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Sometimes things are not as they seem. This is not a golf course. Photo credit: The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2013

Team Building

Just as Tiger has built a strong and loyal team around him; people he trusts to provide him with the best advice; those with whom he can have honest, open discussion and debate; PwP need similar teams with family, friends, many different types of accredited health professionals, spiritual advisors, and people who know how to distract you from your immediate troubles so that you can relax.

Building an Ego

I am pretty sure that Tiger has a substantial ego. Most PwP I know do not. [I do not pass any judgment about myself on this matter.] Parkinson’s has a way of cutting you down to size very quickly and cruelly by inflicting upon you any number of indignities including incontinence and early dementia.

I have come to the realization that if we are to improve quality of life, we (PwP) must strengthen our ego at the level of the individual and develop a strong, sometimes obnoxious ‘collective ego.’  Parkinson’s is a 365+ days a year, 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week job. I hope you will forgive me for saying this but many times, it is all about me! I know it sounds ugly and conceited but PwP must embrace a more demanding and selfish approach. Meek and mild may win friends but if we don’t have an “edge” to make enough noise for our cause, our cause will go unheard, swallowed up in the din of others.

We must make enough noise to convince the following people to not just get on board with your plan but to adopt and modify the plan to ensure success:

  • Leaders who have power and influence within the Parkinson community;
  • Leaders who have money, technology and human resources at their disposal;
  • Government leaders with the capacity to fashion government policy, regulations and direction;
  • Corporate leaders who can apply the economic impetus for a concerted, cooperative and coordinated push for research in the interests of the common good instead of profit;
  • Leaders who are not afraid to step out of a market driven philosophy;
  • Leaders in community organizations and not-for-profit institutions who can maximize fundraising efforts and coordinate the allocation of scarce research dollars to those efforts that have the greatest potential for success;
  • Leaders who bridge these sectors and understand that international cooperation and coordination is superior to international competition when we are trying to find the cause, the cure and ways to enhance quality of life for PwP everywhere;

As PwP we should be demanding greater coordination and cooperation at several levels e.g., government/state, organizational/institutional. We should not be reduced to collective begging or issuing a meek plea for help in finding the cause and a cure for Parkinson’s.

Do you think Tiger grovels for much?

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Know What We Want

Sometimes we have to speak up about what we want and we have to be more selfish about it. Still we have to be realistic and that means we have to be judicious in our demands. We must be diligent in determining what it is we want; why we want it; when we want it; and be able to articulate this clearly. Sometimes we ask politely, sometimes with some urgency, and sometimes we must demand, insist, and threaten. Yes, threaten. Please understand that I am talking not only about personal needs and wants here. There are lots of those to be sure, but I am talking about larger or higher level demands e.g., at the community or societal levels. Corporate entities must not be permitted to avoid communal responsibilities and obligations simply because these do not fit with their marketing plans or with their profit profiles. Boycotts are sometimes effective collective actions in such cases.

Societal Importance and Awareness

Golf is an extremely popular sport or game and professional golf is a very lucrative career if you. have the talent and abilities to win or be close to the top. Tiger Woods’ victory at The Masters victory earned him a cool US$ 2.07 million from the purse alone and even the 9th place finishers (Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay and Rickie Fowler) pocketed US$ 310,500. As a recreational sport, golf is quite enjoyable no matter what your handicap and according to Forbes Magazine, golf was a US$ 70 billion industry in 2015.

I have to confess that I am a fan of young Canadian golfer Brooke Henderson who has taken the Ladies Professional Golf Association by storm these past two years. At age 21 she has 8 tournament victories to her credit. So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that more people are aware of what is going on in the golf world than are aware of what is happening in the world of Parkinson’s disease and the long search for the cause(s) and a cure.

Awareness is one thing and importance is another. I would wager that professional golf is more important to Canadians or Americans than finding the cause (s) or cure for Parkinson’s.

Can We Change The Channel?

Earlier, I stated that 37.2 million viewers watched Tiger Woods and the final round of the 2019 Masters.  If one-tenth of that number (3,720,000) possessed more than a passing knowledge of Parkinson’s disease e.g., able to name two or more characteristics or symptoms not including tremour, I would be extremely happy. Is that target realistic? At the moment, I doubt it but if it is to be realistic target, we would need to make some changes or take some actions to change the channel?

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Changing the channel usually involves hard work and you may be tempted to look away

That is the challenge. Are you up for it? I shall explore this topic in future posts. Stay tuned.

Post Script

I leave you with one final thought for the day:

Parkinson’s is not a game. No one is going to choose “Person with Parkinson’s” over “golfer” as an occupation or lifestyle.

© The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2019

LEARNING TO WALK AGAIN … OR … READING BETWEEN THE LINES

Learning To Walk Again … Or … Reading Between The Lines

Author’s foreword

Readers of this blog know that I have been accused of (and admit to) writing extremely long blog posts with content that takes many twists and turns before finally arriving at some evident, or not so evident, conclusion. Now, I am aware that many people neither like, nor read, lengthy posts and they have articulate reasons for their inaction and inattention.

Equally, I am aware that there is a long and honourable tradition among those who love newspapers (and especially among those who impress upon others that they read their broadsheet newspapers from cover to cover,) to read the headline, a few of the sub-heads and first sentence and then move on to the next article. Naturally, they look at the photos – in a kind of reverse approach to how many men say they read Playboy or Penthouse. 

Today, I acquiesce to this reading style by writing in a form to match i.e., this post will consist of one headline with five sub-heads and respective opening sentences mimicking the content many readers would actually read even if the article were thousands of words longer.  I approach this project fearfully as it is a major departure from my usual style and so many words will have to die in the editing process. Read on to see how this works out.

PERSON WITH PARKINSON’S RENDERED IMMOBILE

The PD Gardener, having walked and cycled almost all of his life was understandably shocked at becoming almost completely immobile i.e., not able to walk without assistance, over a very short time span (4 – 5 days.)

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The PD Gardener doing what he does. Photo: Anne Marshall 2014

Looking for answers (in all the wrong places?) 

“Doctor, Doctor, Mister M.D. Can you tell me what’s ailing me? “ (Endnote 1)

and

Knee bone connected to the thigh bone

Thigh bone connected to the hip bone

Hip bone connected to the back bone (Endnote 2)

The above lyrics sing to me as I struggle to understand the crisis that currently engulfs my body and brain but unfortunately the answer seems locked forever in a “song that never ends.” (Endnote 3)

‘Advance’ and ‘progress’ are positive words, aren’t they?

It is a sobering moment when you realize you are ticking off the progress of your new and/or worsening Parkinson’s symptoms on a mental score card of scientifically established, empirical milestones signifying the intractable advance of Parkinson’s.

Symptoms defy explanation say medical specialists

“Appointments with various physicians, surgeons and other health professionals have left us confused and frustrated.”

The new normal 

Physiotherapy, Pilates and exercise show definite promise to lead the way back to a new normal … but why does the new normal feel like walking on bubble wrap?

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Better take provisions if the journey is 1,000 miles like this first mile.  Photo: The PD Gardener 2015

Next step
“It is often said that ‘a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step’ (end note 4) … but the importance of finding the start line and the correct direction should not be underestimated,” the PD Gardener notes sardonically.

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Perhaps the answer is just around the corner and down the hill…. Photo: The PD Gardener, 2015

End Notes

  1. “Good Lovin’ “ lyrics by Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick. Number hit for The Young Rascals 1966.
  1. “Dem Bones” is a spiritual written by James Weldon Johnson circa 1920.
  1. Origin of “This is the song that never ends” or “This is the song that doesn’t end” is unknown but seems to have been made popular by Shari Lewis and Lamp Chop.
  1. Attributed to Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius and a major figure in Chinese philosophy.

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2016

Sometimes, You Just Have to Garden

This is a hastily written post as a very kind article on The PD Gardener written by Louise Rachlis appeared in the June 8 edition of the Ottawa Citizen page C7 I knew it was in the works and that it would contain a reference to my blog, so I thought that perhaps I should have an up-to-date entry here.  Of course, things get in the way, and if you have been following my blog at all, you know that it is not a straightforward conversation. There are often many twists and turns, a few dead ends and many questions left unanswered.

Suffice to say that, on the one hand I apologize for not having a current blog post for you to digest. On the hand, I don’t apologize because I have been gardening. The garden exploded with new growth in an accelerated fashion. This Parkie guy had a hard time running to keep up with the pace the plants set. Gardening is, of course, my passion and therapy.

Early June Border Shows Lots of colour            Photo: S. Marshall

Early June Border Shows Lots of colour Photo: S. Marshall

But I have also been doing the equivalent of gardening with Parkinson’s. I have been engaged in a program with my physiotherapists, Sue and Maria, from Action Potential Rehabilitation in an effort to rejuvenate this Parkie’s ability to move with some flexibility in a coordinated and balanced manner. This program starts with LSVT BIG and then challenges me as we move into PWR!  It is complemented with twice a week exercise sessions at the Parkinson Society of Eastern Ontario where Dom and Jen put us through our paces and keep us upright and in good physical and mental tone (well, I am working on the physical part anyway.)

These programs provide a mix of sequencing and structured movements specifically designed for persons with Parkinson’s. It pays tremendous dividends in the garden, as I can now work much harder!  When you call hard labour “exercise” or “physiotherapy”, it is applauded and encouraged.  When you just call it “hard labour” it is to be avoided and replaced with modern technology.  In any case, I love this hard labour – whether in the physio clinic, the exercise room or in the garden.

But … there is always a but…. I cannot achieve any goals I set without reliance on pharmaceutical advances.  Others may claim they can, but I can’t … or at least not yet. Consequently, I have also been doing some gardening with my drug regimen. Adjustments are always being made. How many L-dopa per day? When to take them? How close to protein ingestion? What agonists to use? And we hope for the best as seldom does each day unfold in the same way as the previous day. I have recently moved to 8 mg of Rotigotine administered through a patch applied each day to one of many rotating sites on my body.  It has been an excellent adjustment for me. Don’t get me wrong, it is not perfect and I still have to take levadopa pills  but I now have more “on” times than “off” times. Before this it was getting pretty f—ked up.

I am currently reading two books that are providing nourishment for my mind, sustenance for my hopes and fodder for future blog posts and debates. The first, “Where do Camels Belong?” by Ken Thompson challenges us to rethink what we mean by the term “invasive.” Gardeners and environmentalists will either love it or hate it. Watch for references to this book to show up in some of my future blog posts. The second book is “The Brain’s Way of Healing” by Norman Doidge and he challenges us to rethink … well actually to understand and use neuroplasticity to overcome neurological diseases without invasive medical methods. It has a chapter on Parkinson’s that is fairly controversial but deserves to be explored in more detail. In reading these books I have been sowing seeds of intellectual curiosity and cultivating plots where brains heal themselves (a horror story?)

I have also been doing some minor gardening with my family by assisting in the preparation of a family reunion this summer. There are large portions of the family who have never met each other, and some who have never talked to one another for over forty years. There may be historical reasons why these people haven’t talked to one another in such a long time, but there are no good reasons for that to continue. We are looking forward to seeing and hearing what our family tree looks like as we gather near the end of July.

In short, sometimes you just have to garden – and I have been doing that unapologetically in both a figurative and literal sense. I feel all the better for it.  Please take a look at the article in the Ottawa Citizen referenced above, read some of my previous entries in this blog, but above all go to my page for SuperWalk 2015 and make a donation to team The PD Gardner at the following link: Team The PD Gardener

Many thanks!

Life, Parkinson’s and Boxing: Drama, Comedy, Farce, Tragedy … whatever.

Dateline: January 17, 2015 (Muhammad Ali’s Birthday)

I was always told that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. I am about to tell a story here, or a series of stories really, and I am a little unsure how or where to begin, what the middle should be, how it should end, or even what it all means; so bear with me. In the absence of a better place, I shall begin here:

Muhammad Ali turned 73 years old today and seldom does a day go by without a media report on Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s and the general state of his health. Lately, the reporting has taken on a kind of morbid “death watch” quality that I personally find distasteful. Ali has struggled long and hard with Parkinson’s, a progressively degenerative neurological disease for which there is no cure. The very fact that Ali has waged this battle, every day, 24/7, for over 30 years elevates him, in my books, to the highest level of heroism to which any human can ascend, even without consideration of the multitude of other attributes and achievements for which he is rightly lauded as a true champion.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, he converted to Islam in the mid-1960s as “Cassius X” before becoming “Muhammad Ali”. As Cassius Clay, he won the 1959 National Golden Gloves Championship and the Rome 1960 Olympic Gold Medal Championship, Light Heavyweight Division. As Muhammad Ali, he won the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World an unprecedented and unequalled three times – arguably the greatest boxer of all time; a refreshing change of pace bringing poetry and pizzazz to secretive gyms previously the domain of stogie-smoking promoters and trainers smelling of liniment; an entertainer who understood the value (and place) of showmanship in boxing; a personality so unique that even though Parkinson’s has softened his voice, it cannot muffle its resonance; a man who promoted not only himself but boxing and his community; a devotedly religious man who stood for his principles and went to prison as a draft resister in the Vietnam era – a position only a few others of his stature considered doing; a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) who, along with his family, is committed to raising awareness and financial support for research to defeat this final and strongest of his many opponents; an athlete who has become a most cherished champion and hero for those of us living with Parkinson’s as we continue our own long march into an unsteady future with a disease which is degenerative, debilitating, and disabling. Parkinson’s disease has no cure and if we don’t die from it, we will most certainly die with it. The very fact that Muhammad Ali resists its finality fuels us in our own unique struggles with Parkinson’s.

Ali was famous for his bravado expressed through poetry, as is evidenced in this excerpt before he won the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire in 1974:

I’ve wrassled with alligators,

I’ve tussled with a whale.

I’ve handcuffed lightning,

And put thunder in jail.

You know I’m bad.

I have murdered a rock,

I injured a stone,

And I hospitalized a brick.

I’m so bad I make medicine sick.

For a video of Ali reciting this poem and other information see Muhammad Ali Biography

I have probably stated the obvious and you are saying, “so what, tell me something that is new.” While I have never been a big fan of boxing, the “sweet science” as it is called, it does seem to form part of the weft in the tapestry that is my life. This may seem inconsequential and maybe random, but I am not a believer in life being purely random. In previous posts I have talked about my life’s trajectory and whether I have had a conscious role in determining that path. The answer is “yes” sometimes and “no” other times, and I am often hard pressed to pin point the exact moment or moments when I have nudged the trajectory in either a positive or negative direction. So what the heck is it about boxing, a sport about which I profess no great understanding and certainly no skill, that is so important?

Perhaps the most simplistic and obvious point is that I share at least one common life experience with Muhammad Ali. We both have Parkinson’s disease. Ali, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 or thereabouts (diagnoses of Parkinson’s are notoriously difficult to pin down to an exact date) is 73 years old. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago and I am turning 66 this year. As I reflect on the many, many developments and changes in my body, brain, muscles, nerves, tendons, and psyche, I cannot fathom the sheer enormity of strength and determination of Ali’s body, mind and spirit upon which he must call to sustain himself in this bout with a seemingly never ending number of rounds. In many respects, it is nightmarish. In other respects, it is simply the highest testament that can be given to a man who knows, to the end, that his bravado, his showmanship, his celebrity, his strength, his deft footwork and stinging jabs, provide each of us with the determination to continue our own personal battle with Parkinson’s.

Boxing: The Big Boys

When I was growing up in southern Manitoba boxing was not a common sport among children. Parents of the day looked down on it and my generation rushed to embrace peace, love and the “flower power” of the sixties. However, I do know there was an era in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s when boxing had a surge in popularity and matches were promoted in many smaller communities where combatants competed for prize money of $8 for the win. Hardly stratospheric amounts of money – certainly not enough to attract most young men to get into the ring with someone who was determined to knock you out, or at least give you a good whuppin’.

One of my grandfather Bill’s workmates was a man named “Joe.” He had that distinctive broken nose face of a boxer. He was a rugged looking man who always treated me kindly, and who always appeared to be in great physical shape. I know that he fought on many boxing cards around southern Manitoba for little money. By the time I was growing up these boxing events had largely disappeared in rural communities but still continued in the larger centres such as Winnipeg and Brandon.

There is no question that my perception of boxing was forever altered on February 21, 1972 when a friend and I took in a card of four bouts at the Winnipeg Arena. Such a large venue was unusual but it was billed as the beginning of a new era of boxing in Winnipeg. The Canadian Light Heavyweight Championship was on the line in a bout featuring defending champion, Al Sparks, favourite and hometown hero, and the challenger, Toronto fighter Stewart Gray. Little did we know that this evening was to be both an evening to remember and one to forget. It unfolded this way:

In the first preliminary bout Jesse Fagin knocks out Muhamed Kamerick in the second round of a scheduled four rounder. This is Kamerick’s first and only fight … ever. He retires a perfect 1 – 0 – 0. I recall he was introduced as a former heavyweight champion from the Ukraine currently residing in Saskatchewan. In my brief search for biographical information on Kamerick, I was able to corroborate his unbeaten status and determine that he was not from Saskatchewan but from Winnipeg – age unknown, weight unknown, along with a host of other unknowns.

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Winnipeg Arena circa 1972 Photo: From Ice Hockey Wiki

Kamerick looked decidedly out of shape and decidedly out of place – as if he had not seen the inside of a boxing gym or any other kind of gym for quite some time … if ever. His boxing acumen and skills were either very rusty or nonexistent. I rather think that it was the latter. His opponent, Jesse Fagin on the other hand, looked trim and fit and danced rings around Kamerick in the first round landing a few good punches, seemingly at will. Kamerick rarely connected, if at all. Thirty seconds into the second round Kamerick threw a wild roundhouse left hook, which might have appeared to connect with Fagin to fans somewhere in the Winnipeg arena but not from where I was sitting. Fagin went flying backward, arms out as if hit by a Ukrainian thunderbolt, landed on the canvas and was counted out by the referee.

The oddity about Jesse Fagin (5 – 3 – 0 before entering the ring with Kamerick) was that this was his first fight in ten years. His last bout was December 11, 1963 in Weirton, West Virginia where Bobby (Sweet Boy) Warthen (lifetime14 – 18 – 0) knocked him out in the third round of a scheduled eight rounder. And, not surprisingly, his last fight before that was five years earlier (November 1958) when unknown Alex Walker (lifetime 2-0-2) stopped him on a TKO in the first round. Even though Fagin did not have much of a boxing pedigree, it was a more believable pedigree than Kamerick’s, but just marginally so. This night at the fights did not have a very auspicious beginning as they say.

Surely, it would get better.

In the second bout, Nafiz Ahmed (a heavyweight) knocked out Sammy Poe (a middleweight) in the second round of a scheduled four rounder. Ahmed is listed in Boxing Records as hailing from Vancouver, B.C. with a lifetime record of 4 – 4 – 0. Is it coincidence that this would be Ahmed’s last ever bout and, at 41 years old, this would be Poe’s final professional fight? He would end his career with a dismal record of 2 – 5 – 1. Interestingly, Poe’s last fight before facing Ahmed was almost 10 years earlier when he lost on points to Jim Christopher on March 7, 1963. By the way, this is the same Jim Christopher scheduled to face George Chuvalo in the third bout of this Winnipeg card. As you may sense, the coincidences are becoming too frequent to be coincidental.

I recall that the crowd reacted with derision when Poe hit the canvas. It looked like he went down awfully easily. To tell the truth, it looked like he stayed down because he really was not all that interested in getting up. I am not convinced that the blow that felled Poe was a connecting blow. You might venture to say that he was blown over by the wind as the punch sailed by him, but that punch was never traveling fast enough to generate as much as a puff of breeze.

This brings us to the third bout of the evening – one to which we were quite looking forward. Living Canadian boxing legend and icon George Chuvalo would be fighting Jim Christopher. The recorded facts of the fight are that Chuvalo knocked out Christopher in the second round of a scheduled 10 rounder.

However, of much more interest is the back-story, the sidebar story, the behind the scenes story, the under the table story, or whatever this sordid story should be called. This would also be Jim Christopher’s final professional fight and he would retire with a lifetime record of 6 – 23 – 3, hardly an impressive career. Christopher had last fought on December 4, 1969 (over three years earlier) when he lost a unanimous decision to Bill Drover, a respectable fighter from Newfoundland and Labrador in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For whatever reason, Christopher was drawn back into the ring to fight the hard-hitting Chuvalo on February 21, 1972.

Our seats were near an entrance leading to the ring from underneath the stands. We were within earshot of the referees as they left the ring to return to the referees’ dressing room. And boy did we ever let the referee from each of the first two bouts know what we thought – that the whole affair was rigged; that we were cheated out of our money; and that we were disgusted with the way the fights had ended. I knew one of the referees from my hockey playing days where he had been a trainer, and I clearly recall shouting that I thought he was a sellout and that we expected better.

And we were confident that the better was going to start with this third fight – Chuvalo vs Christopher. From the instant that Chuvalo stepped through the ropes and into the ring, we knew we were witnessing one of the true great Canadian fighters. Oh, we also knew that Chuvalo was nearing the end of his great career and that his best days were behind him, but his punches were sharp and crisp, not lazy and round, and sizzled through the air ending with a sharp smack as they connected with their target. I recall trying to imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of those sledgehammer body blows for which Chuvalo was famous. It hurts to even think about it.

This fight with Christopher was to be Chuvalo’s tune up for a May 1, 1972 rematch fight with Muhammad Ali in Vancouver, B.C. (For the record, Chuvalo would lose that rematch with Ali in a unanimous decision in 12 rounds.) But back to the Christopher fight. Some tune up. A few days later Christopher would publicly admit to throwing the fight in the second round claiming he had received a threat prior to the start of the fight. As far as I know, Chuvalo had no knowledge of this situation and was as surprised as the rest of us when Christopher lay down in the second. I have no reason to doubt Chuvalo – he was never going to be tested by a fighter of Christopher’s calibre. Still, it looked and felt unsavoury and dishonest, reeking of corruption, especially in light of the two previous bouts. And in retrospect, it still stinks.

Is it oddly coincidental that of the six fighters in the first three bouts, five of them would never fight again? On the basis of their demonstrated talents and boxing skills, the same five should not have even been in the ring on this particular night.

George Chuvalo’s career is legendary in Canada and we bought tickets partly because this would likely be our only opportunity to see him fight in person. He fought World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali for the title in March 1969. It was a fight that Ali was supposed to win, and he did with a unanimous decision after 15 rounds. Although Ali did outbox Chuvalo in almost every round, Ali never really stunned him. It was in this fight that Chuvalo, a boxer who was never dropped to the canvas in his professional career, solidified his reputation as a boxer who never stopped moving in on an opponent no matter how hard or how fast his opponent’s punches battered his usually puffy and often cut eyebrows and cheeks. In the March 1969 fight, Chuvalo moved like a slowly advancing tank to pound away on Ali’s body with heavy blows. But just as Chuvalo never flinched from Ali’s jabs or left-right combinations, Ali never showed as much as a grimace in acknowledgement that Chuvalo’s strategy was having any effect. Each combatant put on a clinic, highlighting two boxing styles that stood in sharp contrast to each other.

In the end, Ali’s superior boxing style and quick hands were too much for Chuvalo’s grittiness. To his credit, Chuvalo did make attempts in almost every round to mix up his barrage of body punches with some well timed combinations or left jabs to Ali’s head. Chuvalo’s hometown Toronto crowd roared each time in anticipation that their boy would connect and send Ali to the canvas. But Ali was too quick and escaped the barrage, dancing away, or recovered with well-placed jabs, hooks and crosses forcing Chuvalo to give ground. Ali danced and circled for 15 rounds and Chuvalo was not going to catch him this night.

Both fighters weighed in over their ideal fighting weights with Ali at 214.5 pounds and Chuvalo at 216 pounds. Announcers, Al McCann and football star Jim Brown wondered out loud if the stamina of each fighter would be negatively affected by the additional poundage. Each fighter stayed true to his game plan. Ali Danced and weaved. Chuvalo kept going straight ahead, looking to do damage to Ali on the inside. Neither seemed particularly bothered by the extra weight or the length of the fight.

The final scoring had Ali well ahead on points winning all but one or two rounds. In each round, just when Chuvalo seemed to be coming on strong, Ali would recover with a flurry of punches in the final 30 seconds as if to put an exclamation point on the round – emphasizing that the Champ was still in charge, was the aggressor and had won the round. In a few rounds, Ali did seem to toy with Chuvalo but it was not egregious unsportsmanlike behaviour, and certainly not out of character for Ali. Some accounts of the fight allege that the heavy pounding Ali took to the body left the Champ sore and urinating blood for days afterward. But at the conclusion of the fight, the Champ showed no evidence that Chuvalo’s blows hurt him much. It was only in later years that Ali would attest to the heaviness of Chuvalo’s punches.

Chuvalo fought all the best fighters of his time between 1956 and 1978 … and lost to all the best fighters of his time: Zora Folley, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Muhammad Ali (2), Oscar Bonavena, Joe Frazier, Buster Mathis, George Foreman, and Jimmy Ellis. Chuvalo did have his share of wins finishing with a record of 73 wins, 18 losses and 2 draws. His biggest victories were knockouts over American Jerry Quarry and Canadian Yvon Durelle.

Yvon Durelle? Funny that his name should come up.   Let’s take a few minutes to talk about Yvon Durelle. Durelle was one of the great Canadian boxers with a lifetime record of 88 wins, 24 losses and 2 draws. Nicknamed ”the Fighting Fisherman” or more popularly “doux” which is French for “soft” or “gentle” by his Acadian friends, he was primarily a middleweight but often fought above his weight class in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions as he did when he fought George Chuvalo.

But it was Durelle’s light heavyweight championship fight against Archie Moore on December 10, 1958 in Montreal that really made history and solidified Durelle as one of the greats – even though he lost! He was an underdog going into the fight but he knocked the Champion, Moore, down three times in the first round. Current boxing rules would have ended the fight at that point and declared Durelle the winner. Durelle failed to go to a neutral corner after the first knockdown and lost valuable seconds before the count on Moore began. Moore struggled to his feet at the count of nine. Durelle knocked Moore down again in the fifth round but Moore held on, making one of the most incredible comebacks of all time, knocking Durelle out in the 11th round. Durelle lost but his gritty performance, and near victory, elevated him to near cult status in Canada.

I recall hearing a description of the fight. I am unsure as to whether I heard a live blow-by-blow broadcast or whether it was an abridged taped version. In any case, it was extremely thrilling and my nine-year-old sports brain soaked it up.

Years later, a documentary on Durelle’s life indicated that he owed thousands of dollars in back taxes, was almost penniless and running a bar in Baie-Ste-Anne, New Brunswick, where he was charged with murder after shooting a trouble-maker. Defended by Frank McKenna, a young lawyer who was to later become the Premier of New Brunswick, Durelle was found not guilty.  But clearly there was a lot of trouble in his life.

My father, who often times could be quite acerbic not to mention opinionated, remarked that this is what happens to boxers. They are exploited in a business where unsavoury characters manage your career, live off your prowess and bilk you of your prize money. He further opined that Durelle was “punch drunk,” and wandering the streets with diminished mental capacity. There is no question that Durelle took many hard right hands, left hooks and jabs to the head over the course of his career. And, undoubtedly, he fought in many unsanctioned matches not counted in his official professional record – perhaps twice as many. But I am not so sure he was “punch drunk.” He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease later in his life. But was it “caused” by boxing?

There is a condition called dementia pugilistica (DP), a variant of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or chronic boxer’s encephalopathy, traumatic boxer’s encephalopathy, boxer’s dementia, chronic traumatic brain injury associated with boxing (CTBI-B), and punch drunk syndrome. In short, it is a neurodegenerative disease affecting boxers, wrestlers and other athletes who suffer concussions.

However, the literature is less than clear as to whether there is a direct relationship between DP/CTE and Parkinson’s. There certainly is considerable speculation that boxing is a “cause” of Parkinson’s (or Parkinsonism) given that boxers such as Ali and Durelle were afflicted with Parkinson’s. But I have seen no conclusive evidence that indicates that boxers are over-represented in the population of persons with Parkinson’s.

I had never heard that phrase, ”punch drunk,” before my father used it. It conjured up an image of a rough and tough looking boxer with that signature nose, broken one too many times, lurching uncontrollably through the streets. Today, I sometimes think of that image as I lurch through stores, along crowded sidewalks, through door jams, up and down stairs, past any and all obstacles in my way, with all the grace of a drunken hippopotamus. I have Parkinson’s disease. I am not “punch drunk.” At least I don’t think that I am.

But let’s return to February 21, 1972 at the Winnipeg Arena. The fourth and final bout of the evening was a scheduled 12 rounder for the Canadian light heavyweight title featuring reigning champion and hometown favourite, Al Sparks. Sparks finished his somewhat short career with a record of 23 – 13 – 1 but held the Canadian light heavyweight title several times and had contended for the British Commonwealth light heavyweight title in 1969 losing on points to Bob Dunlop of Australia in 15 rounds.

Sparks’ opponent is Stewart Gray, a mediocre fighter who finished with a lifetime record of 14 – 14 – 2. Gray’s main claim to fame was as older brother of Clyde Gray, a three-time contender for the world welterweight crown and holder of the Canadian and British Commonwealth welterweight titles at various times. Clyde’s lifetime record was a more than respectable 69 – 10 – 1.

Both Gray and Sparks approached this bout in workmanlike fashion but only Sparks was able to make good solid contact in the early rounds as Gray did not seem to be able to adapt to the southpaw’s style. It was clear that Sparks had done some damage in the sixth round and Gray’s corner, including his brother Clyde, worked feverishly to get Gray into shape to meet the bell in the seventh. Gray walked to the centre of the ring but just stood there with his hands hanging loosely at his sides. He looked confused. I remember the whole thing looked confusing and I didn’t know what I was witnessing exactly as it was so out of context. With the crowd screaming, Sparks approached Gray to engage but seemed puzzled when Gray did not appear to be willing to defend himself. Sparks backed off. The referee, Steven Trojack, made no motion to end the bout, so Sparks moved in with a left hook that put Gray to the canvas and down for the count. Officially, the bout goes into the record books as a knockout for Sparks 24 seconds into the seventh round.

Gray does not recover consciousness in the ring and is taken away by paramedics. Even though he does regain consciousness briefly in hospital, Stewart Gray undergoes emergency surgery and, tragically, dies from head injuries the following day, February 22, 1972.

There is an unproven assertion that Gray had suffered a head injury in a truck accident in advance of the fight and this may have contributed to his death. An investigation into the fight revealed that Gray had not undergone an electroencephalogram that may have detected such an injury and prevented Gray from fighting. But there was no requirement to do so.

What an evening of boxing! It was comedy, then farce, then tragedy.

The first two bouts appeared to have been fixed with knockouts executed in almost comedic fashion. Surely, even the most naïve of boxing fans could not be fooled by these antics. The third bout smelled pretty rotten as well but it was more difficult for fans to accept that there was any shadiness or underhandedness as it was the great George Chuvalo attacking an inferior opponent who had little chance of laying a finger on him. Still, the manner in which the conquered combatant, Jim Christopher, hit the floor strained one’s credulity. Later, Christopher alleged that he was approached by a stranger prior to the fight with a threat that led him to throw the fight with Chuvalo in the second round. There is no evidence that Chuvalo had any knowledge of this development.

Let’s recap. Amazingly, eight fighters went into the ring that night and only Chuvalo and Sparks emerged to ever fight again. Jesse Fagin, Muhamed Kamerick, Sammy Poe, Nafiz Ahmed and Jim Christopher ended their careers on February 21,1972 in the Winnipeg Arena under a shrouds of personal ignominy.  Stewart Gray was to die the following day, most likely as a result of injuries sustained in that fight. Al Sparks fought only three more times after the tragic Stewart Gray fight, losing two of them by split decision, before ending his 21 – year career (23 – 13 – 1) with a unanimous decision victory over mediocre George Jerome on November 4, 1977. George Chuvalo fought in only eight more bouts over the next six years, finishing with a TKO victory over the same mediocre George Jerome (13 – 15 – 2 lifetime) for the Canadian heavyweight title on December 11, 1978. Still, Chuvalo chalked up an impressive record of 73 – 18 – 2 over a 20-year career and a reputation as never having been knocked to the canvas even by some of the greatest fighters of his generation.

The Manitoba Boxing and Wrestling Commission issued suspensions to all participants on the card. However, the Commissioners all resigned when they were asked to lift the suspensions while the Manitoba government conducted a judicial inquiry. A new Commission was appointed and the suspensions were lifted on March 1, 1972 in time for Chuvalo to sign a contract to fight Muhammad Ali in the second of their two fights in May 1972.  However, Fagin, Kamerick, Poe and Christopher would all have their licenses suspended again after further investigation.

It is a very sad commentary indeed that the death of Stewart Gray provides me with the only evidence that this entire night of boxing was not fixed, rigged, contrived, stacked, set up, framed, thrown, or willfully predetermined to defraud boxing fans of not only their money but their faith that the “sweet science” would determine a victor based on skill, abilities, conditioning and mental as well as physical toughness. The best I can say is that the Sparks vs Gray fight was not fixed. It ended in death. I don’t believe either fighter would have agreed to that outcome.

Boxing: The Little Boys

Grain elevators are probably the most photographed and painted icons of the prairies. Each town, village and hamlet had at least two. The community where I grew up had three. Ogilvie’s was farthest west on the track and was the oldest. At the eastern end was the Federal Grain elevator. It was the newest of the three and I can remember it being built within my lifetime. In between stood the United Grain Growers, often called the “UGG” or more colloquially to us kids, the “United Grain Grabbers.” These elevators had to be maintained and periodically crews would be sent to carry out necessary repairs and paint maintenance.

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I recall a crew of young men arriving in town to carry out repairs at Ogilvie’s. They most often checked into the local hotel but on this occasion the crew bunked into the office of the elevator for their short stay. As usual, we children were nosing around to see if we could find any interesting “distraction” from the boredom of small town life. For example, on another occasion when the “new” highway was being built, we would go out to the worksite where the Euclid earthmover operators would allow us to sit in a makeshift seat behind their chairs and we would bask in dust and diesel fumes while they scraped the earth from fields and ditches and deposited it to make the road bed. I am certain that our parents were none too pleased and it contravened every health and safety code I am sure, but we loved to do these things and, as children, we really didn’t know better. What an education I had as a child! And, I hasten to add; we were fortunate that no one was hurt!

I am not sure what we expected when we approached the elevator crew at Ogilvie’s early that summer evening. The men on the crew were young, physically fit and had energy to engage in sports after their workday was done. One young lad had two pairs of boxing gloves. I don’t remember what weight or brand they were but they seemed huge, bulky and strange, rendering our thumbs immobile. I was not the youngest present but I was not the oldest either. One of the crew suggested that we should go a few rounds with gloves on, for fun.

Gloves from 1950s

Gloves from 1950s

We were paired up roughly according to age and size. I was fairly tall and big for my age so I was paired against a boy who was not only older but who was more muscular from working on his parent’s farm. I confess that I was a little flabby, being a town kid and all. The younger boys were anxious to try out the gloves and they were slotted into hastily constructed preliminary bouts. They were, however, long on enthusiasm and short on boxing technique, prowess and style. They came together in the middle of the office floor (all desks and chairs had been pushed to the sides) and immediately began wind milling wildly, whaling on each other with such a flurry and fury that it bore no resemblance to the “sweet science“ of boxing. It was more akin to setting two demented monkeys loose to scream and fight for the last banana. Each match was over within seconds as the victor overpowered the loser through the sheer volume of wildly directed blows landing anywhere and everywhere.

When it came time for the featured main event, me against Ron, both anticipation and expectation ran high that this fight would be worth the price of admission which in this case was … well … nothing … but pride and natural male competitiveness do carry some value. There was no question that each of us would give it our best shot to win. One of the crew members became my handler and worked to lace my hands into the gloves in my “corner” on the far side of the door – giving me advice on boxing technique and strategy as he did so. One of the other young lads was doing the same for Ron in his ”corner” over near the far end of the windows. Each of us had seen some boxing on TV (actually on Orville’s TV as he had the only TV in the community) so we had some notion of the basic premise. The third member of the crew was the official judge and referee.

Gloves laced up and wiped clean, we danced in our corners as introductions were made. I was “Big Red” and Ron was “The Fighting Farmer.” We came together with the referee in the centre of the ring, received official instructions, touched gloves and the fight was on! In the first round we circled each other cautiously, tendering exploratory jabs along with a phantom feint or two. One of the crewmembers commented, “Now this is more like it” giving each of us a little more incentive to deliver a good fight. Neither of us landed any blows that were clear hits and the opening round likely would have been scored as even.

"Big Red" in front of potential venue for elevator match    Photo: unknown

“Big Red” age 2, in front of potential venue for elevator match              Photo: unknown

The second round began with each of us being a little more aggressive. Neither of us had great technique but we were able to fend off some fairly dangerous right crosses and left hooks. I think Ron was a little more aggressive than I was in this round and a judge likely would have scored it in his favour. Surprisingly, we were each growing a little weary at this point as neither of us was used to dancing and moving for any extended period of time. It is beyond me how the early bare-knuckle boxers used to go 70 or 80 rounds before finally knocking out their opponent, or succumbing to his blows.

Round three of the scheduled three rounder began. I recall seeing the punch coming but I didn’t expect the end result as Ron hit me with a straight right hand squarely on the chin and sent me flying back towards the door where I stumbled on the doorstep and slipped to one knee. Immediately, the referee jumped in and the fight was over. Ron was declared the winner by TKO at about 20 seconds of the third round. I, of course, like every fighter who has been knocked off his feet, protested that I could go on, and firmly believe to this day, that had I been allowed to continue, I would have vanquished my opponent. Nevertheless, the referee called the fight and my lifetime boxing record was established at 0 – 1 – 0 albeit in a non-sanctioned bout. I was never to lace up the gloves again.

At the time, I took some solace in the fact that I did give a decent account of myself against an older boy who had a clear physical advantage. And, of course, I knew that most other great fighters had lost at least one fight in their careers. Only the great Rocky Marciano went undefeated in the heavyweight division – a perfect 49 – 0 – 0. And I knew I was not the only fighter in town to have a winless record.

As I indicated earlier, the generations prior to mine engaged more formally in boxing as a sport with organized cards for adult “professionals” and school age amateurs alike in many communities, large and small. Now, there were two old geezers in my town, neighbours, who didn’t particularly get along. Names and some details are disguised in this account as rivalries and feuds often remain long in the ground of small communities, like anthrax waiting to infect another generation. I don’t want to be responsible for precipitating a renewed outbreak of hostilities between the families and, more importantly, I don’t want to be caught in any crossfire or become a common enemy upon whom they turn new found wrath. So, let’s call them Y and Ynot.

Y has somewhat effete mannerisms and no one would ever label him as being a man’s man. He worked all his life in an office environment and puttered about his yard, gardening with a delicate touch. When he goes about his business he fusses around a lot before actually getting down to business. Y has a son named Y2 who fancies himself to be a bit of boxer – likely because other children his age are merciless in their teasing about his father. However, Y2 is a string bean and not a very good boxer and I don’t believe he ever recorded a single win.

Ynot is, on the other hand, a self-styled man’s man – a successful farmer who retired to town in order that his son Ynot2 could take over the farm operation. He purchased a lot close to Y and built a new house. Y was not very happy to have a new neighbour and took every opportunity to complain about Ynot’s house and property. There developed a kind of mean low level bickering feud between the two men.

My friends and I were often hired by Ynot to do yardwork or other odd jobs and on those occasions Ynot never missed an opportunity to badmouth Y or any member of Y’s family. In fact, Ynot often cast aspersions on Y’s manhood by saying such things as, “Y only has one ball, ya’ know” or “Y was hiding behind the door when God handed out balls and he only got a leftover deformed ball.” Ynot laughed at Y and made fun of everything that Y did, often mimicking his mannerisms such as the way that Y always dusted off his chair with his handkerchief and placed the hanky delicately upon the seat before sitting just as delicately upon it; or the way Y drove his car without ever looking to the left or the right, or even behind when he backed out of his drive. Admittedly, it was rather frightening to observe Y behind the wheel. In the winter, we children would “bumper shine” or hang onto the bumpers of cars and slide along the snow and ice packed streets, letting go only when the car attained a speed that was too fast for us, or when it turned a corner and we were thrown into the ditch by centrifugal force. This “sport” was decidedly unsafe and I discourage anyone from doing it today. In fact, it was doubly unsafe when Y was driving because the weight of two or three of us bumper shining would cause Y’s car to slow or perhaps spin its tires, stopped on the snow and ice. If the car were close to stopped, Y would quickly hit the clutch and pop the car into reverse, backing up in search of greater traction. I am not sure if Y knew we were hanging on to his bumper and he just didn’t care if he ran over us, or if he was oblivious to our game. All of this just reinforced our perception that Y was not all there and that Ynot’s assertions held some truth.

The boxing story, as I heard it, happened one day in a neighboring community where Y2 was one of the combatants on an organized card. Y decided to attend to cheer on his son. Y arrives at the venue, finds a seat and spends considerable time with his back to the ring, preparing and dusting off both his seat and adjacent seats and then draws a second handkerchief from under his hat to be placed such that his ever broadening derriere can descend upon it, protected from any dust or irritants. But before his backside hits the cloth, there is a great roar from the crowd almost simultaneously with a thudding sound from the ring behind him. Y turns to see Y2 laying flat on his back on the canvas, knocked out cold by his opponent. Y2’s boxing career is over and Y never does see him box. Ynot dines out on this story for years, satisfied that neither Y nor Y2 belong to his club of “real men”.

As I reflect upon this series of events, I am not convinced that men have advanced much past this infantile behaviour. For many years, I thought this story was funny. But throughout those years it was rolling around in my head in ephemeral form and it is now being committed to paper with words that ensure its survival over time, in a form that is not malleable or easily changeable – and now upon re-reading it, I think it is just a sad commentary on human social relations. … Or maybe it is a little bit funny?

Boxing and Parkinson’s

As I mentioned at the outset, the obvious connection between boxing and Parkinson’s disease is through Muhammad Ali. And we discovered that Yvon Durelle, thought to be “punch drunk,” was diagnosed with Parkinson’s before he passed away on January 6, 2007. If we dig further we find that others in the boxing community also had or have Parkinson’s disease. Frederick “Freddie” Roach is a boxing trainer and a former professional boxer. Diagnosed in 2010 he owns the Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles where his client list includes Amir Khan, Manny Pacquiao, Mark Wahlberg, and Georges St. Pierre.

It is becoming more and more evident that exercise and physical fitness are incredibly important to those of us who have Parkinson’s. Living with Parkinson’s means training the body and mind to overcome the barriers that Parkinson’s presents. Strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, concentration, cognition and confidence are all necessary if we are to delay the progress of this disease that robs us of natural abilities we take for granted e.g., walking in a straight line without staggering or falling; turning over in bed (yes, believe it;) or being able to play a musical instrument or ride a bicycle even though you suffer from the stereotypical tremor that haunts most PwP.

It is likely that physical fitness and mental toughness have enabled Muhammad Ali to look Parkinson’s squarely in the eye for all these years. Boxing, ballet, dance of all types, Pilates, cycling, walking, swimming, physical fitness programs, physiotherapy, balance and strength programs, etc. combined with additional cognitive exercises have given many PwP a new lease on life. I personaly find the LSVT BIG program to my liking.  We train our bodies and our minds to develop new routines and neurological pathways, and reinforce old ones. So what if I have to relearn most of the choreography each time. It actually becomes easier to relearn it each time. So what if I will never be able to balance on one foot for 60 seconds without holding onto something. But I will, most likely, be able to recover if my balance does waver without falling completely over. So what if I quiver and shake when I am waiting to engage in an activity. Once the activity begins, I am engaged and the Parkinson’s slips to the background providing me with that much sought after feeling of freedom when one is in control of one’s own body. Will this last forever? Not likely. Parkinson’s is, in the end, a most cruel and unforgiving disease. But one thing I know for sure, I want that feeling of freedom and independence to last for as long as I can possibly make it last. And I want to enjoy the ride!

Boxing is one of those sports that keeps PwP moving physically and alert mentally. These folks will never enter a boxing ring to fight a round in earnest but they will find great psychological fulfillment and motivation in imagining that their punches are pummeling Parkinson’s into submission. “Punching Out Parkinson’s” is the rallying cry at Paulie Ayala’s boxing classes at a gym in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Ayala, a former bantamweight and featherweight world champion, trains 50 PwP from six neurologists during three classes a day, twice a week. Similarly, the Cummings Centre in Montreal provides boxing instruction for PwP as do the PD Gladiators with retired boxer Paul Delgado near Sandy Springs, Georgia. Boxing clubs such as the Rock Steady Boxing Club (Fighting Back Against Parkinson’s) have sprung up across North America catering to both early onset and mature onset Parkinson’s clients.

I have never participated in any formal boxing lessons but I do know that when I take a turn at the speed bag at my physiotherapy clinic, it is great fun, a very vigorous workout, and is enormously cathartic. We need avenues to release the stress and frustrations of Parkinson’s and boxing fits that bill perfectly, and at the same time it enables our bodies and brains to maintain and regenerate neurological pathways.

In a previous post, “In the Parkinson’s Garden: Ali, Michael J. and Me” (see archives December 2013) I fantasize about what it would be like if Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox were to visit me in the garden. Ali, tall and imposing, would be bobbing and weaving between the Jerusalem Artichoke and Joe Pye Weed, occasionally resorting to rope-a-dope tactics along the fence line, the crowd roaring. Michael J. would be riffing on the guitar at the front of the border, crowd roaring.

Ali would be among the Artichokes and Joe Pye Weed at the back and Michael J among the Brown-eyed Susans at the front   Photo: S.Marshall

Ali would be among the Artichokes and Joe Pye Weed at the back and Michael J among the Brown-eyed Susans at the front                                                                   Photo: S.Marshall

Yes, these are fantasies and not hallucinations, and they are essential to my mental well being – every bit as much as hammering the heavy bag or matching the rhythm of the speed bag or bobbing and weaving like a butterfly in a valiant attempt to strike the fatal stinging blow to the greatest of our opponents, Parkinson’s disease.

So how do I conclude this meander through my memory banks? I will resist the temptation to reiterate the obvious connections between boxing and Parkinson’s. Instead, based on the facts inscribed on the pages above, and if we accept that life is marked by a certain amount of confusion and disorder infused with measures of comedy and tragedy rendering it close to farce at times, and if we accept that sometimes heroic physical and mental toughness is critical to life, what I want to say can be summed up as follows:

  • Life is often messy.
  • Boxing can be messy.
  • Gardens are never messy.
  • Parkinson’s disease is always messy.
  • Messiness can be obviated … mostly.

If you have made it this far, treat yourself – exercise your body and your mind. Fight messiness.

 

‘Car Trouble’ or Who was in the Boot with Parkinson’s?

It is a rare occasion indeed when Ottawa, Ontario (at the confluence of the Rideau, Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers) is mentioned in the same breath as Lake Kawawaymog near South River/Algonquin Park in Ontario, and the Assiniboine River near Treherne, Manitoba. The straight line distance between Lake Kawawaymog and Treherne is approximately 1,502 kilometers (934 miles.) The straight line distance between Ottawa and Treherne is approximately 1783 km (1108 miles.)  Interestingly, a straight line from Ottawa to Treherne runs almost directly through Lake Kawawaymog.

 Photo: AFMarshall

Lake Kawawaymog                                                             Photo: Anne F Marshall

Other than having this interesting geographical juxtaposition, their waters never intermingle directly, but a strange thing happened last week. A time – space continuum was breached, as my thoughts traveled to our immediate destination (Lake Kawawaymog) and kept on traveling straight to Trehere not only across 1783 km but also back through 57 years of temporal space. No, I was not hallucinating because I have Parkinson’s disease and although Parkinson’s was along for the ride, it just wasn’t driving as usual. And yes, the levels of all bottles in my stash of scotch remained constant so there is no blame to be directed there.

A = Ottawa B = Lake Kawawaymog C = Treherne

A = Ottawa
B = Lake Kawawaymog
C = Treherne

Please bear with me. I can explain but you will have to be prepared for a somewhat circuitous route.

Anne and I were embarking on a relatively short journey (51/2 hours or so) from our home in Ottawa to Anne’s sister (Wendy’s) and brother-in-law (Ger’s) cottage on Lake Kawawaymog. My own sister (Ger) and brother-in-law (Terry) were accompanying us as we were to drop them off en route at Terry’s sister’s place. Regular readers probably realize that I do not often reveal names beyond my immediate family on the grounds that some of them are, in fact, innocent. But in this case, in order to avoid confusion, I need to note that both my sister and my wife’s sister’s husband respond to the name “Ger”, one being Geraldine, and the other Gerald or Gerry. Fortunately for us they seldom are in the same room together, but they are included in many sometimes confusing conversations.

On Highway 17, some twenty minutes west of the City of Ottawa boundary, our trusty hybrid vehicle (make, model and year withheld to avoid any possible litigation) decided to pack it in. In the old days when a vehicle died it just stopped running, or made some horrible grinding, mechanical noise. In this case, when I kicked the accelerator to pass a slower vehicle in front of us and to avoid a faster vehicle which was intent on riding up our rear end, the hybrid cried out electronically with a cacophony of bells and whistles, and a plea for us to “pull over and stop safely” appeared in bold text across the dash in front of me. Further attempts to rouse the engine and transmission to their respective tasks went unheeded. We slowed and coasted to a stop on the gravel apron.

We sat in disbelief for a moment and then I did what every human is programmed to do – reboot. I again started the car, put it in gear and pushed carefully on the accelerator. Toying with us, the hybrid got back up to speed, but then quickly relapsed into ‘I ain’t going nowhere mode.’ The four of us sat somewhat stunned as the realization that our routine trip was going to be anything but routine.

While we gathered our wits, I did have some fear that this situation would trigger an attack of Parkinson’s tremors and accompanying pain in my left foot and leg. I do suffer from persistent pain but it had been largely under control on this trip barely registering a 2 or 3 on my 10 point scale. And stress, even of the most innocuous sort, usually precipitates such responses. I need not have worried. It didn’t develop. But more on that later.

‘Car trouble’. Those words rolled around in my brain with a familiarity which surprised me. When I was a very young boy, ‘car trouble’ followed us around like the black cloud over Joe Btfsplk’s head in L’il Abner. In the late 1940s and early 1950s my parent’s traveled the highways and byways of Manitoba in at least two different Austin Healey cars. And funny little cars they were. Turn signals were not yet in common use on many vehicles and hand signals were an obligatory part of the highway driving code. Winter was always chilling as wind and snow blew in the driver’s side window onto whichever poor child had the misfortune to have the rear left seat.   Then came a breakthrough which sealed the Austin’s comical fate in my mind forever – electric turn signals emanating from between the posts of the front and rear doors on each side. Controlled manually from inside the net effect was that of little illuminated rabbit ears popping up and jutting out with each turn, and popping down when the turn was complete. I do recall that my father hated it when I would reach out of the back window and try to keep the ears from popping out. Fortunately, he could not swat me as I was in the seat right behind him and he never swore so I escaped immediate wrath. And he mostly forgot such things by the time we reached our destination.

I recall my mother being in perpetual fear of breakdown especially on rainy days and on muddy roads, or during bone chilling minus 30C winter days. These are fears she carries with her to this very day.  In winter, we children traveled under the warmth and weight of several itchy khaki blankets courtesy of my grandfather and my dad, and the military. To be fair to Austin Healey, ‘car trouble’ included getting stuck in snow or mud, dead batteries in the middle of winter as well as a variety of mechanical concerns ranging from inoperative windshield wipers, to frozen heating systems with no defrost, to holes in the gas tank from the pounding of gravel from the roads. A good road had gravel; a bad road had mud; both were dangerous. There were precious few paved roads.

But, back on the apron of Highway 17 we were waiting for the tow truck to arrive to carry the hybrid away in an inglorious fashion, when the memory of a leaking gas tank on the old Austin flashed through my mind. I am not sure why, but maybe it was because it was also at the beginning of small exciting trip for me. I was a young lad of about eight. My dad and I were off on a day trip to go fishing in the Assiniboine River near Treherne, Manitoba.  We rarely fished in the Assiniboine in those days, preferring to fish in the smaller Pembina River which ran closer to home. [This was before the days of torrential summer rains which flood large sections of Manitoba. How about that? I think I have lived long enough to document climate change in my oral histories!]  Anyway, the fish in both rivers were mostly Northern Pike which we called “jackfish.” In summer, the river was warm and the fish sluggish and mushy. As you can imagine, sluggish, mushy fish taste like sluggish, mushy fish. The thrill was in the catching not the eating.

Nevertheless, Dad and I were returning to the great meandering Assiniboine because a month or so earlier we had been fishing off a shoal on the shallow side of the river, casting our lures into the deeper waters eroding the far bank, when my lure was struck with a heavy hit from something large. It almost ripped the rod from my hands and the rapid retreat of whatever was on the other end caused the handles on the reel to rap painfully on my knuckles. As an eight-year old, I had no concept of how to skillfully play a fish for landing. The fish (I assume it was a fish and not some Assiniboine version of Ogopogo – Lake Manitoba’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster,) came back towards me just as rapidly and I cranked in the line. The fish then turned to make a second desperate escape bid neatly snapping the taut line, making off with my favourite red and white spinner and dashing my hopes of landing a really big one. If I were telling this to you in person, I would punctuate the story at this point with my arms stretched out widely.

So, we were returning to the Assiniboine, somewhere west of the bridge on PTH (Provincial Trunk Highway) 242 and east of the bridge on Highway 34 in search of the “big one that got away.” I am not certain which bridge was called the “new bridge” and who knows, they maybe call it the “new bridge” to this day, some 57 years later, such is the unique passage of time on the prairies. Only we never made it – car trouble.

Somewhere north of Notre Dame de Lourdes, we let it slip away. [Funny, these words evoke some notion of a Canadian version of “Me and Bobby McGee.”] Anyway, dad noticed that the gas gauge was going south faster than the old Austin was going north. A quick stop for dad to peer beneath the car, dust still billowing behind us and over our heads. The verdict: a small puncture in the gas tank. A new problem; never had this before. What to do? Perhaps it was too far to return to our home in Altamont? Besides, we both held out hope that it could be repaired and we could continue on our expedition. I also think my dad didn’t want to disappoint me. Dads are often like that.

It was a Sunday. I know this because my dad only ever had full days off on Sundays. So we continued on towards a nearby farm. We pulled into the yard and into an open shop (a wood frame building as it was in the days before there were many steel Quonset huts.) I don’t recall much other than the farmer was nice (they usually are) and wore the obligatory coveralls of the day. The floor of the shop was a combo of concrete and dirt – hard to know where one started and the other ended – both covered with oily, greasy substances accompanied by that distinctive petrol smell. My dad and the farmer quickly discussed the particulars of the situation and jacked the car up with a hand jack. Yep, closer examination confirmed the original diagnosis – a small puncture in the gas tank. I recall my father not being happy about the quality of the steel of the tank and the fact that there did not appear to be any protective shield for the gas tank.

What to do? There was a discussion about possibly welding the hole. Thank God this option was discarded quickly! A search for something to plug the hole ensued: rolled up paper – nope; rolled up cardboard – nope; small twigs – nope; some form of glue found in the shop – nope; gum chewed to a sticky mess by an eight-year old boy – nope. Combinations of the above – nope. Other materials were undoubtedly employed as potential solutions but none succeeded in stemming the slow leak.

A decision was made to top up the tank and turn for home, disappointed that the day would end without a fish, or even a fish story.  My father, being the methodical man he was, scratched out a rough equation in an attempt to determine the optimal speed to drive to be most efficient such that the amount of gas used by the motor minus the rate of leakage did not decline past zero i.e., we would not run out gas before we reached our home destination. All without speeding the poor Austin into the ditch or attracting the attention of the RCMP who patrolled those roads. I fear this mathematical learning opportunity was largely lost on me. We reached home safely and the “big one” got away once again. It was an anti-climax that the tank was repaired by sending it to Winnipeg. From that day forward, it always had an additional protective shield deflecting any gravel that would spit up from the roadbed.

Meanwhile, back on Highway 17 modern technology was working exactly as intended. Using our two cell phones we called roadside assistance covered courtesy of Ger’s CAA card. [Note to self: get one.] A tow truck and taxi were dispatched to our location. After a short cell phone conversation with the service department, the hybrid was towed to the dealership for repairs. We searched the internet on our cell phones for the closest car rental agency, determined car availability and had the taxi deliver us and our luggage to that exact location. A replacement car was secured. Phone calls and texts to those at our respective destinations were made, took time for lunch, and we were back on the road with only a two hour delay.

No one panicked – not even Parky.  My Parkinson’s remained remarkably in check – no exacerbated tremor or pain for that time period or for the remainder of the day. Amazing! Modern technology, money of course, and the presence of mind of my brilliant sister to have a roadside assistance card, took most of the guess work out of this crisis.

Maybe … but my past experience is that if Parky has an opportunity to screw things up, it will. So I am still left with the burning question: why didn’t my Parkinson’s act up and make life unbearable for me, if not for others? It could just be the reduced stress as noted above, or it could just be luck as Parkinson’s often is unpredictable with a mind of it’s own. I actually think that on this trip Parkinson’s was in the “boot” along with the luggage. As a kid I always laughed when the old timers referred to the trunk as the “boot” and the hood as the “bonnet.” The Austin had a boot, and a bonnet.  Our current car trouble was under the bonnet and Parky was discretely packed away in the boot.

Upon further reflection though, I am coming to realize it is also likely that I am developing (with a lot of help and encouragement) skills in implementing certain techniques and practices to diminish the impact of Parkinson’s – to keep it in the boot so to speak. For example,

(1) I have been reviewing for quite some time The Pain Toolkits produced by Peter Moore whom I follow on Twitter @paintoolkit2 and his website http://www.paintoolkit.org/  The toolkits and Peter’s encouragement on Twitter have been instrumental in my attempts to be in control.

(2) I switched my physiotherapy approach to LSVT BIG and PWR (Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery) at Action Potential Rehabilitation http://actionpotentialrehab.net/ where my physiotherapist is Sue Goodridge. Even though I have only had a few weeks under this program I already feel that I am gaining a better understanding of both the mechanics and the theory of physiotherapy as applied to Parkinson’s. Such things as movement, flexibility, coordination and balance are among the keys to a better quality of life. Even simple exercises such as “splaying my toes” remind my feet and brain that my toes are intended to move that way. For too long my brain was sending signals to my feet and toes that they should remain immobile in some futile attempt to avoid or lessen pain. In fact the opposite – more movement – is required. Movement and exercise are critical for persons with Parkinson’s.

(3) My physio, Sue, aside from having all the skills and qualifications of a physiotherapist, is quite expert in chronic and persistent pain. She has pointed me in a direction of “mindfulness meditation” as a way to approach stress-related persistent pain and to deal with muscle movement disorder. I am discovering that pain management is greatly enhanced when we have an ability to focus, or re-focus, the brain away from the problem. This is somewhat of a surprise to me as I have never been an adherent of meditation per se although I have long practiced what I jokingly refer to as “mind over matter trickery” to overcome both pain and tremor when I want to go to sleep. Of course, it may just be that I am exhausted …

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way an expert in any of the above areas. I have only just begun this particular journey.  We shall see where it takes me and I shall be blogging from time to time about these experiences and adventures.  So far, I feel that there is real improvement and that my optimism is warranted.

That being said, none of these programs, techniques or practices is as important to me as the love, encouragement, understanding and support of Anne, our four daughters and their respective husbands/partners. They are the fuel for the engine that keeps my old chassis moving – even if the bonnet and boot are too large.

All of this rambling has been my usual long winded way of saying that I escaped what should have been a very stressful day as Parkinson’s was relegated to the ‘boot’ in the ‘car trouble’ affair. It was a pleasant drive with Ger and Terry to their destination, and good food, drink and stimulating conversation with Wendy and Ger made for a relaxing time when we reached our cottage destination.

But, I have to tell you a secret. Parkinson’s was not alone in the boot. My dad and his mother Maud (my grandmother) were also in the boot. I am pretty sure they had never been held captive in the boot when they were alive, and I am also pretty sure that this was not an imposition for their souls and/or spirits at this time. Nevertheless, our vehicle was carrying two of the three children born to Kathleen and Bert, our mother and father. Perhaps, our father provided prudence to my sister Ger to purchase the roadside assistance card; our grandmother Maud was in the boot to keep Parkinson’s under her stern and intimidating watch (you met her in earlier posts); and my dad also would not have wanted our mother who hated car trouble to worry – she is still living and so could not be in the boot but she was likely huffing at Bethany where she lives in Middle Lake, Saskatchewan.

How do I know they were with us? We were close to Terry’s sister’s where we were to drop Terry and Ger before we continued on to the cottage. Turning a corner, a field of naturalized lupines appeared on the left side. Struck by such beauty I braked abruptly (no one behind thank goodness,) and jumped out of the car to snap a few shots with my iphone – chalk another one up for technology.  At that point I knew that we were accompanied by someone who loved the passengers in this vehicle, who understood intrinsically the beauty of such a sight, and knew that I love lupines!

Photo: S. Marshall

Lupines!                                                                                                   Photo: S. Marshall

As always, my experiences leave me with a bit of a mystery or intrigue that raises questions, sometimes philosophical. In this case, both my grandmother and my dad were colourblind! Not a life threatening condition to be sure but how could they fully know what they were seeing?

What you see when you are colourblind.  Source: Coblis Colorblindness  Simulator  Photo: S. Marshall

What you might see if you were colourblind.  Source: Coblis Colorblindness Simulator                                                               Photo: S. Marshall

Surely if they hadn’t experienced the full visual effect, they could not know that the striking natural beauty of the lupines would literally stop us in our tracks, sending a signal to us that all was well. But think about it. They were horticulturists by nature and experience, and their love and appreciation of Nature allowed them to transcend this disorder of being colourblind. I try everyday to use my dopamine assisted brain to transcend a neurological disorder called Parkinson’s to alleviate pain and tremor.  And you know, it often works.

I can only conclude that on this particular day, Parkinson’s did not stand a chance.

 

Parkinson’s and the Gardener’s Shadow

Every year about this time, I begin to look out at the frozen tundra of our garden and wimper, “everything’s dead ….”

 

"Everything's dead ..." Photo: S. Marshall

“Everything’s dead … ” Photo: S. Marshall

But the magic always returns in the spring with snowdrops and crocus shoots emerging even before the snow and ice have fully receded. I marvel at the resilience of the flora that survives in the Ottawa Valley.  In the gardening parlance of plant hardiness zones, we are mostly in zone 3 but plants hardy to zone 4 and 5 often survive in specific microclimates. 

I don’t know why I am surprised, because I grew up in the even harsher climate of the Manitoba prairie where zone 2 would be the order of the day with some zone 3 locations.  And my family in The Pas, Manitoba and Humboldt, Saskatchewan (in sub-arctic zones) would snort at any suggestion that the Ottawa climate is “harsh” compared to what they live through.  Nevertheless, they do try to rationalize their choice to continue living in such a climate by citing the old saw that theirs is a “dry” cold, and therefore they are not really that cold.  However, anyway you slice it, the mean annual temperature of The Pas – 0.3 C (31.5 F) compared to Ottawa 6 C (42.8 F) tells the story.  Ottawa is cold and The Pas is damn cold – ‘nuff said.

It is small wonder that humans have spent considerable effort to overcome their environment by developing a variety of shelter options and energy uses to provide protection from the cold, and heat in other parts of the world. Of course, there is considerable evidence that we have not been effective stewards of planet earth in our efforts to protect the very environment we are protecting ourselves from, so to speak. I will not address that issue today but, rest assured, it will return to these pages in the future. It is too important to ignore.

There are many who would avow that nature should always be allowed to take her own course without human intervention.  Of course, this idea, unfettered and taken at its extreme, cannot be achieved. It would mean that humans could never intervene in the course of nature in order to better the human condition, or indeed to survive. Humans have always sought to “tame” nature, to “overcome” nature, to “improve upon” nature, to “protect” them from nature’s wrath as well as to “benefit” from nature’s bounty. 

There are countless theses and dissertations written in disciplines as varied as engineering, philosophy, environmental science, sociology, psychology, architecture, and literature to name but a few, exploring the relationship that humans have with nature. I don’t plan to engage in an academic exercise of outlining all of the issues and conducting some sort of meta-analysis by formulating hypotheses and reaching conclusions – believe me, I am as thankful for this as you are. My observations are, as usual, anecdotal and unscientific but hopefully thought provoking.  

It is important to understand that the gardener always will tinker in the garden and always will intervene to alter the course of nature, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. And sometimes just to show that we can. It was reported recently that a man in Chidham, West Sussex in the UK has successfully grafted 250 varieties of apples onto one tree over the course of some 24 years. Don’t believe me? Google it.  

Upon reading that account, I was reminded of my watching, as a young child, my paternal grandfather (Bob) grafting what seemed to me to be twigs onto various types of trees in his orchard.  He meticulously demonstrated how to prune the spear being grafted at a precise angle to be inserted into an incision in a branch of the receiving tree. It would be bound with twine or a piece of bark and covered with a type of rooting hormone and gum to cover the tender incision.  I am told he was successful in grafting more tender varieties of apples onto hardier rootstock and even produced some apricots in a climate not favourable to such tender fruits in southern Manitoba.

That is a fine memory indeed but do you know what I really remember?  I remember my grandfather’s hands as he manipulated his old pocketknife (sharpened on a foot powered treadle grinder in the farm shop) in a gentle but firm procedure. I remember his thick thumbs and fingers, seemingly incapable of such dexterity, being more than adequate to slip the young scion into the incision for the graft. Those fingers had often used that same pocketknife to cut a slice of apple, proffered to me with pride, from one of the many varieties grown in the orchard on his farm. And amazingly, even though Parkinson’s has diminished my sense of smell considerably, the crisp scent of that apple still tingles in my olfactory lobe. Tart and clean.

Not even sure what kind of apples these are.  Must get my pocket knife. Photo: S.Marshall

Not even sure what kind of apples these are. Must get my pocket knife. Photo: S.Marshall

But more than that, I remember those same thumbs and fingers on my father’s hands as he tended his flowers and vegetables in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A short growing season, but loam rich soil and many hours of sunshine made for a fast transition from spring planting to fall harvest. Dad also had a pocketknife which he used to cut into various fruits and seeds in his efforts to provide an education on gardening (if not horticulture) to a mostly unreceptive teenager – me. I watched his hands grow old in the garden, in his workshop, and in his efforts to keep his mind sharp by filling out every crossword and Sudoku puzzle he could find, in pen. 

Today, I look down to see those same thumbs and fingers on my own hands as I deadhead spent flowers, root out troublesome weeds, and dig with an old spade to move, remove, or replace various perennials. But there is no pocketknife in my hands. The era of security checks at airports have diminished their numbers, although I am pretty sure that I have one or two tucked away in my ‘odds and sods’ drawers (yes, more than one drawer.) However, unlike my father’s or grandfather’s, my hands often shake and my fingers fumble to meet the task at hand. Parkinson’s is never far away if it is not immediately present.

But I am not disturbed by my inadequacies. Rather, I am heartened that I had the great fortune to witness those hands fly across three generations with a destiny to toil in a vocation (for my grandfather) and an avocation (for my father and me) to assist nature in creating beauty, joy and satisfaction.

Humans have long put their own stamp on ‘gardens,’ witness the many and varied formal and informal garden types neatly categorized within a nationalist typology: English, French, Japanese, Dutch, Korean, Spanish, Persian, Chinese, Italian, etc. All are created with plants and hardscape endemic to their namesake nations, if not to their immediate environs. But most have unmistakable human influences that, while artificial, are evidence of efforts to “improve” upon nature. I was reminded of this during a short walk we took recently in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was Prime Minister of Canada for a remarkable 22 years in total during the years 1921 – 1948 and developed a country retreat at Kingsmere north of Ottawa in Quebec. He bequeathed that estate to the people of Canada and, among other things, the public is welcome to view his attempts at creating “ruins” on the property. He salvaged portions of buildings and landmarks being demolished in Ottawa and relocated them to Kingsmere. It is widely known that Mackenzie King was quirky to say the least, and some may think that these “ruins” are folly but most visitors would likely agree that they are creative enhancements to nature’s already established beauty.

Does this ruin the View? Photo: S. Marshall

Does this ruin the view? Photo: S. Marshall

Still, anyone who gardens knows that nature is not always beneficent and we sometimes intervene deliberately with the intention of altering the trajectory of a phenomenon that is harmful. On a very small scale, I am trying to root out some very invasive vinca minor (periwinkle) that is threatening to take over and choke an entire bed of hostas and other innocent victims. Periwinkle, in its place, is a very fine, hardy ground cover that can thrive in considerable shade and has a lovely, small flower (periwinkle of course.) Unchecked, it wants to take over the world.

Vinca minor (periwinkle) would like to take over the world. Photo: S. Marshall

Vinca minor (periwinkle) would like to take over the world. Photo: S. Marshall

Whether I like it or not, I have Parkinson’s Disease, a natural phenomenon with no known cure. It is neurologically invasive.  Many organizations are working diligently and relentlessly to fund and conduct scientific research to achieve a cure. Success would mean a monumental change in the course of history for millions of Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP) and their families, and for those who are at risk for Parkinson’s. I do not expect to benefit personally from this work. The time frame is too short; the disease is too advanced. No matter, it is critical to continue to pursue a cure. Scientists, Parkinson’s support groups, fundraising organizations, fundraisers, caregivers, family members of PwP, individuals and philanthropists are all in agreement that a cure is our primary goal. But there are at least three corollary ‘meantimes.’

In the first ‘meantime’, we continue to use the gold standard of levodopa along with an array of other pharmaceuticals to keep the disease in check and to help us remain upright in a never-ending struggle to defy the inevitable.  Chemical assistance works to a certain degree but there are long-term and short-term side effects, and drugs do wear off. 

In the second ‘meantime’ we pursue strategies to alter the functioning of the brain.  For example, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is an invasive brain surgery that has brought relief to many PwP.  I am privileged to have met someone recently who had DBS although at the time of this writing he has yet to have the stimulus unit fine-tuned to its final settings. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to witness the improvement in his tremor even without the full effect. It was also a pleasure to witness the genuine excitement and relief that he and his spouse exhibited throughout a lengthy process of being accepted, having the surgery, and in the immediate post-surgery period. I am confident that the next time we meet they will be wildly satisfied with the outcome.

There is also hope that a newer, less invasive ultrasound brain procedure will be as effective as DBS by focusing ultrasound waves on a specific part of the brain killing the cells causing the tremor. This procedure requires neither invasive surgery nor a general anesthetic and holds great promise to alleviate some symptoms and provide a much improved quality of life for PwP and their families. 

I am under no illusion that DBS or ultrasound is a “cure.” They are not. Some of the more problematic characteristics of Parkinson’s are decreased but not totally eliminated.  Most patients receiving the treatment still require drugs such as levodopa but usually in much reduced quantities. DBS or ultrasound is not for everyone. In my own case, I do have considerable tremour when the medication wears off but my major concern is cramping and pain in my legs and feet. I am not sure that these can be changed through these procedures.

Other research seeking to unlock the genetic code of PD is underway and may well lead to the discovery of ‘markers’ allowing for earlier identification and treatment. All scientific research must continue.

It would be an understatement to say that PwP, families and caregivers are praying that a cure can be found. Those of us in our mid-sixties or older know the likelihood of a cure within our lifetimes is exceedingly slim. Perhaps those with early onset Parkinson’s will see the development of a cure. Realistically, that would be my greatest wish and the best possible outcome.

In the third ‘meantime’, we must focus on other measures such as exercise to delay the progression of Parkinson’s and to alleviate some of its immediate effects.  The October 2013 World Parkinson’s Congress in Montreal brought together research scientists, physicians, PwP and their families, caregivers, therapists, health and social work professions, health policy analysts, fundraising organizations, advocates, and many others from around the world to inform, discuss, analyze and make recommendations.  I did not attend but followed the congress on various websites and Twitter postings.

At the time I did not know many PwP personally but still the excitement about the Congress was palpable, driven by a sense that all players in the Parkinson’s equation would meet on common ground to share critical information to make a quantum leap towards enhanced quality of life for PwP and their families, and a cure.

The concept of exercise – moving our bodies in some deliberate physical manner for at least 30 minutes each day – was pervasive at the Congress. It is beneficial to those facing a wide variety of physical and mental illnesses. Parkinson’s is one of those.  I am not fooling myself into thinking that exercise can cure any disease but it appears that its greatest benefit is to delay the progression of some of the most problematic symptoms e.g., rigidity, stiffness, slowing of gait, feelings of weakness, imbalance, etc.  As long as these can be delayed, changed, or improved, exercise is a good prescription. There is even a very good campaign in the UK to have physicians prescribe exercise as per guidance issued to the National Health Service by the UK National Institute of Health and Care Excellence. (See Exercise Works! http://www.exercise-works.org/.)

Exercise for PwP can take a wide variety of forms with walking, Nordic pole walking, cycling, running, x-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, aerobic exercises, rowing, Pilates, yoga, dance, Tai Chi, and boxing being among the most popular.  The National Ballet School in Canada and the Mark Morris Dance Group for PD in New York have specific ballet and dance classes for PwP.  Each type of exercise has its adherents and specific selling points – cardiovascular, flexibility, balance, strength, concentration, etc.  Nevertheless, they are all in agreement, exercise is critical to physical and mental health in PD and to delaying the disease.  (Nevertheless, Anne and I do have a good chortle when we imagine me doing arabesques or pirouettes. Don’t underestimate the importance of laughter in the medicine cabinet.)

Rather than ballet, I have been developing a regimen of cardiovascular training using a NordicTrack machine, some light weight training with free weights, along with aggressive gardening (attacking weeds and invasive plants with vigour.)  Coupled with good nutrition and eating habits, I lost over 35 pounds since January 2013 and I feel better. Or at least I did until recently when I seem to have developed some issues with sciatica and/or right hip. My neurologist is clear it is not PD related so I continue to explore the problem with other doctors. This new development, while somewhat painful, has me very much frustrated that I am not able to continue my regular exercise routine. I take this frustration to be further anecdotal proof of the thesis that exercise is beneficial as it has a negative consequence when withdrawn. I am currently awaiting results from x-rays and will be seeking further medical attention in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned.  

You know, I have always thought that I was ‘progressive’ but I didn’t really want to have progressive aging along with a progressive neurodegenerative disease – both incurable by the way.  In any case, it is sometimes difficult to discern which symptoms are related to PD and which are just related to getting older. PD itself is a series of ups and downs, good days and bad days. Growing old just adds to the fun! Ain’t life just peachy that way?

I once told a student that he should always write something to signal that his paper has a conclusion, or is coming to a conclusion. His next paper succinctly intoned: “Here comes the end.” So, take heart, the end (of this post only!) is near.

Today, we have drifted perilously close to some heated philosophical debates about humans and nature without having ventured so near as to melt our wings. We will need those wings for other flights into the worlds of Parkinson’s and gardens, as they do meet regularly but mysteriously.

Just as every gardener casts a long shadow and a watchful eye over the garden in the belief that we can improve on nature, every person touched by Parkinson’s tries to cast a shadow over this hated disease to alter its natural course.

I leave you with these questions: Can humans partner with Nature on an equal basis to create beauty? Can humans win the struggle with Nature to eradicate the ugly?

The gardener's shadow is omnipresent. Photo: S. Marshall

The gardener’s shadow is omnipresent. Photo: S. Marshall