I have a dear and blessed friend who, when he learned he had Parkinson’s disease, did not leave his house for almost a year. He hid, he wept, his soul was crushed and soon it was as though he became “a totally different person.” Then he learned to fight. This June one of the very few people who even knew he was sick whispered to him about the Rock Steady Boxing program at the North River YMCA and, at his personal request, I watched him fight Friday afternoon. It is also at his personal request that I extend an invitation to anyone who is now afflicted with Parkinson’s or is a care-giver to someone with “PD” to join in fight right now. A new round of classes starts next week in the nationally acclaimed method of putting “PD” at bay.
Understand — the boxing is only against the bag – there is no human-human contact other than the way kindred hearts encourage one another. The fight is a different story and, bluntly, it gave my friend, he who stayed inside his house for a year, his life and his laughter back.
The poet tells us, “You cannot say no to life. You have to fight back and beat the odds. You gotta’ take your stand because nothing is stronger than you … not a single problem of yours.”
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes identifies Parkinson’s as “a group of conditions called motor system disorders, which are the result of the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. The four primary symptoms of PD are tremor, or trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; rigidity, or stiffness of the limbs and trunk; bradykinesia, or slowness of movement; and postural instability, or impaired balance and coordination.”
While it is true there is no definitive cure for Parkinson’s disease (yet!), a court prosecutor in Indiana, Scott Newman, realized that vigorous exercise – much like the regime of a championship boxer – could be honed to deal with Parkinson’s symptoms. Members are urged to yell to strengthen vocal cords as their voices soften, jump rope and do lunges to keep away the shuffling steps, and to hit boxing bags wearing authentic gloves to build muscle and hand coordination that slow the tremors.
On Friday at the North River Y there was another dear friend who I have known many years and had I not been told he had Parkinson’s, I would have not known. He is robust, ever smiling and encouraging, and throws his 80-year-old body to work without abandon. Classes are held twice during the week and on Sunday. On alternate days there is a spinning class.
It is believed that while exercise will not rid a person of the disease, it will most definitely delay its advancement. In November last year the famed reporter Leslie Stahl of “60 Minutes” did a segment on the “Rock Steady Boxing” program and she didn’t have to go far to find an impeccable source. As Aaron Latham sparred with his boxing coach, Leslie identified him as her husband. I think of Parkinson’s as being the incredible shrinking disease,” said Latham. “It doesn’t shrink itself. Parkinson’s doesn’t shrink. Parkinson’s shrinks you.”
Unbeknownst to Latham and his wife, the “60 Minutes” program spurred a Rock Steady Boxing surge across the country. Kristen Schillaci and Nichole Berger run the Chattanooga effort and each participant is required to have a doctor’s order and pay a minimal monthly fee. The best part: “Everybody who comes can see gradual improvement in the others … so they realize it is working for them too.” Stephanie Combs-Miller, the director of research at the University of Indianapolis’ College of Health Sciences, conducted the first major study on the effects of boxing therapy on Parkinson’s and is totally sold on the fighters. She told “60 Minutes,” “When these people with Parkinson’s disease step in that gym and they’re being yelled at by a coach, they’re no longer a person with Parkinson’s disease. They’re a fighter. They’re a boxer. And that’s the difference. They don’t feel that disease anymore. We studied people over a two-year period who participated in boxing and we didn’t see any progression of the disease in the people that boxed.”
“It arrested the disease?” asked Stahl. “Right. In fact, in some cases, they were better after the two-year period of time. Their function was better.” As I watched Friday’s class at the North River Y, one participant was pointed out with the whisper, “When he first came here he could hardly walk … what he has done is absolutely amazing. This gives people a new meaning.”
At the same time, a kind-looking man introduced himself to one of the instructors and asked if they had any more room. His hand tremor was slight but his heart was not – he has chosen to stand and fight. “This is without question Chattanooga’s best-kept secret. People don’t know about this. Please tell the story … This is all about hope.”