Parkinson’s patients putting up a fight against disease

There’s no cure for Parkinson’s disease — yet. But one local group is putting up a fight, and relishing every punch. 

Rock Steady Boxing gives people with Parkinson’s disease hope by improving quality of life through a non-contact boxing based fitness curriculum. 

“I found out about Rock Steady Boxing when my sister called to tell me to turn on my TV,” said Peggy Woodson. “Leslie Stahl was on the Today Show telling the audience how her husband has benefitted from Rock Steady.”

Every year, about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Woodson’s husband, Lloyd, was diagnosed February 2014. Since then, the couple has been active members of the Eljay Foundation for Parkinson Syndrome Awareness and proactive about the use of therapies found to slow the disease’s progression.     

Woodson told Eligha Guillory, president of the local Parkinson’s support group about the therapy and he urged her to find a place for classes. She approached Hope Therapy Center’s Sonya Brooks.

“She jumped at it,” Woodson said.

Brooks and staff traveled to Indiana for certification. The Eljay Foundation for Parkinson’s Awareness supplied the groups’ wrist straps, gloves and T-shirts. That was a year and a half ago. Classes meet Monday and Thursday at 5 p.m. Each class is $10.        

Hope Therapy Center’s Stephanie Lacoste said she works with seven men and two women who all have Parkinson’s, but their symptoms vary widely. These can include tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles, impaired posture and balance, loss of automatic movement, speech and writing changes and feelings of depression or anxiety.  

People 60 and older are more likely to get it. Medicines can help symptoms. It picks as mercilessly on the energetic and physically fit as the couch potato. One Lake Charles Rock Steady Boxing participant, Michael W. Ortego, has been in marathons all over the south. Lloyd Woodson loved being active, especially working in the yard and traveling.  

“Alright, it’s time to put on your gloves,” Lacoste called out, donning a pair of mitts. “I need three people on the punching bag, one person over here with me, and the rest of you need to line up shoulder to shoulder and pass the medicine ball.”

Lacoste said the traits that boxers work on to make them good in the ring — being light on their feet, quick, strong and flexible — are the skills Parkinson’s disease attacks. 

When a person first gets Parkinson’s, there may be no symptoms until almost 80 percent of the body’s dopamine cells are depleted. These messenger cells are necessary for telling the body’s nerves, muscles and body parts what to do, which is necessary for something as simple as stepping over a small obstacle in a path, automatic movements that people without Parkinson’s take for granted.

Studies have shown exercise that emphasizes gross motor movement, balance, core strength and rhythm could favorably impact range of motion flexibility, posture, gait and activities of daily living.

The first half of the Lake Charles Rock Steady Boxing class included simple warm up movements and exercises that challenged balance and cognitive skills. Each person’s performance was followed with claps, whoop-whoops, wrist bumps and assists.

Allen Richert started classes three weeks ago. His wife stays close by as he gets a steadying hand from another class member and instructions from Lacoste on on how to concentrate and move.

“I realize we could do this at home,” his wife said, “but it wouldn’t be the same. There’s a real camaraderie here and that can be motivating.”

Ricky Duhon received his diagnosis in 2015. He’s 62. It’s not obvious he has Parkinson’s.

“I didn’t know much about Parkinson’s,” he said. “It was a shock to get the diagnosis. This program has given me a sense of belonging. It reminds me that we’re all fighting the same fight.”

Michael J. Ortego said he can feel the difference the class makes in his life every morning.

“I was very stiff,” he said. “Now I’m ready for the day.”

A couple of people in the group expressed disappointment that one of the group’s success stories wasn’t in class. He had to sit to do his exercises when he started, and now he can stand.

Carol, who asked that her last name not be used, had been scheduled to have back surgery. She decided to go for a second opinion. The doctor realized from her gait, it was Parkinson’s disease causing her symptoms, not a herniated disc.

When the Lake Charles Rock Steady boxers pulled on their gloves, there was a change in the room’s energy. A few of the guys seemed to almost develop a swagger.

“Did they tell you this is non-contact boxing?” Carol asked. “That is true, but I like to think of myself as beating Parkinson’s every time I throw a punch.”

To find out more about Rock Steady Boxing, call (337) 478-5880. To find out about The Eljay Foundation for Parkinson Syndrome Awareness support group, call (337) 310-0083.

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