In the summer of 2011, I was living about a mile from Lake Lynn in Raleigh, North Carolina. The lake is vertical in design as it is about 5 to 7 times longer than its width when measured from its northern perimeter to its southern boundary. The rich diversity of trees and vegetation along with water in abundance gives shelter and food to a number of birds such as heron, hawks, ducks, geese, and swans. I’ve seen deer that will eat out of your hand after a game of trust settled any inhibitions. The lake is an idyllic place to sit or walk at the closing of the day.
The trail around the lake is 2.2 miles. Most days I would stroll from my apartment and walk around the lake twice. It was on these daily walks that I first noticed stiffness in my right thumb along with a slight tremor. I would walk with a rock in my right hand to try to alleviate the discomfort I felt. I play guitar and work with my hands so I assumed it was from constant usage. A friend joined me one day and commented on my thumb, but I brushed it away; I was fine, just a bit of arthritis.
About six months later I awoke one morning to extreme pain running down my left leg. So much pain that I could hardly get out of bed as it seemed to hurt more from lying down. I finally was able to get up and after a minute the pain subsided leaving just a faint reminder of its former self. But showering and getting dressed proved a challenge and the clincher was trying to tie my shoes… I was going to the emergency room.
The diagnosis was a pinch sciatic nerve in my lower back. I was given steroids for the pain and told to keep walking, stretching, with awareness of my posture to ease the pressure on the pinched nerve. After the steroids, ibuprofen became my drug of chose. Sciatica can cause chronic pain in its worse state. And although my pain was far from being chronic, it was just enough to keep my mind off of my right hand which had begun to shake even more in a quivering kind of motion. It was as though my hand were waving at someone.
As the pain of sciatica subsided I slowly began to notice other physical irregularities; a period that seemed like a fog to me as I was taking enough medication to create a constant state of non-awareness or so I thought… later I was to learn that my cognitive processes were also being compromised.
The first thing I noticed was my handwriting… it was getting smaller, so small in fact that I couldn’t read most of what I wrote. When I walked my feet constantly shuffled and skipped causing my shoes to wear out faster than normal. I walked as though I was shrinking…shoulders leaning forward, head lowered…it seemed my head was in a race with the rest of me. My right arm had lost its natural swing so all the movement was in my hand. I had to constantly remember to pick up my feet and swing my arms to walk properly. All these things linked together as my posture and gate suffered causing me to feel off-balance and dizzy. I looked like I was drunk.
In the way of my thinking, I assumed or more appropriately convinced myself that my issues were a result of my pinched sciatic nerve. Of course, there was only one way sure and that was to see a neurologist. In what may have been serendipity, I googled ‘neurologist’ and the first thing listed was the National Parkinson Foundation. I had thought of Parkinson’s disease but like I said I was in denial, even though, my hand was begging me to reconsider.
As I pressed enter and the screen opened, the National Parkinson’s Foundations home page came into focus and I saw the phone number for the helpline. Without a second thought, I dialed the number as though I didn’t have a choice, and I didn’t. The woman at the other end was extremely helpful and though she couldn’t answer all of my questions she was able to put me in contact with a neurologist in Raleigh who would have answers; one of the 50 top specialists on Parkinson’s in the United States. I called for an appointment, surprised that I didn’t need a referral from my primary physician.. This was almost too easy; it was like a path had opened without any interference. While on the website I clicked on a page entitled ‘10 Early Warning Signs of Parkinson’s Disease’ and not to my surprise I had at least five of the signs.