Parkinson’s Foundation, Moving Day, Atlanta, October 21, 2017
By Metty Pellicer
I first noticed very subtle, fine resting tremors, in my left hand, the year after I walked the Camino Santiago de Compostela. You may have heard of this medieval pilgrimage route, in Northern Spain. It starts in France and ends at Santiago, in Galicia, 800 km later. There is a movie about it, My Way, starring Emilio Estevez. It gives a fair depiction of the experience, but you can also read my personal account of it, in my book, Hello, From Somewhere: Stories of the Roads I Traveled. I walked the Camino for 33 days, in August 2012, to mark my 70th birthday. After Johnny, my husband of 35 years, died in 2004, of a heart attack, and my retirement in 2008, from 41 years of medical practice, I was kind of feeling unmoored. I tried to achieve spirituality in my life, I thought that was what was lacking. I was a non-observing Catholic, and I did not care much about participating, in any organized religion again. So I went to a Buddhist retreat, in the Zen Monastery at Tassajara, in the Los Padres Mountains, Carmel Valley, CA. It was intense and very stimulating intellectually, but I could not embrace it fully. I heard about the Camino, in one of my travels, so I thought that was what I needed. A moment alone to contemplate, about my life and hopefully, to achieve some spirituality. I wasn’t sure if I acquired spirituality, but I emerged from the Camino, with a clear head, and renewed vigor, about embracing everything, that life offered.
And that included Parkinson’s. Like I said, it started with barely perceptible resting tremors, on my left hand, which I observed usually, after some sustained physical activity, like after 18-holes of golf, or 3 sets of tennis, after a 3-mile walk or a late party. Then it became more persistent, even without physical activity. I mentioned it at my next physical check-up, and my internist thought, it was likely essential familial tremor, and suggested a wait and see approach. I went on a skiing trip to Aspen with friends, and I fell four times. Not wanting any injuries at my age, I engaged an instructor for a day, to recover my form. I finished the holiday skiing the green runs, and groomed blues, but I noticed subtle difficulty, with balance and turns. At the New Year’s Eve Ball, of the Fil-Am Association, that same year, I noticed difficulty with full turns, and alternating rhythms of the salsa, cha-cha, and I lost some ease, in following the fast shifts in boogie. Then, the following year, my friends kept asking me, if something was wrong, was I depressed? They noticed I was not as expressive and talkative, and less lively in my movements. I began to have stiffness in my back and neck, and during my walks, I had muscle aches and cramped easily. During karaoke sessions, I couldn’t belt out long passages, and was unable to hit the high notes of Memories, from Cats and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. I had to sing Moon River at a lower key. I dropped things and stumbled easily. I was in Oaxaca during the Guelaguetza, and I almost rearranged my face, trying to jump over a barricade to avoid the long lines, but thankfully, I was supported by a friend, before I hit the ground. I hesitated at nothing physical before. I jumped over large puddles, climbed trees, took stairs two steps at a time and ran downhill, did bungee jumping, parasailing, and danced drunk, on tabletops. And then last year, everything came together; the postural rigidity, resting hand tremors, bradykinesia, incoordination, the hallmarks of clinical diagnosis of Parkinson’s. I became more forgetful, multitasking was no longer a skill, and my voice had become a hoarse whisper. I noticed some subtle freezing in movement; when I was about to address my golf swing, on sustained walking, and when making a quick, tight turn. My advantage was that I was an observer and I knew my body well. I could identify subtle changes. And my medical knowledge, gave me the information necessary, to manage these changes. I overcame freezing by instructing my body to move, transferring the action to the brain’s executive area. I monitored my posture, gait, and speed, and consciously corrected them, when found wanting. I strove to transform my unconscious, spontaneous movements, into deliberate actions. I’d think of a song or mark a rhythm to my steps, so I could swing my arms and move more fluidly.
After I have diagnosed myself, I delayed seeking professional diagnosis, and did not start medications for several months. I convinced myself that the changes were not significant enough, to adversely affect my quality of life. And internally, I felt just the way I always had. I rationalized that as the medications do not cure, or alter the course of the disease, and known to have many side effects, I was hesitant to drug myself. But I did not minimize the illness, or deny it. I read up on it, and joined a Parkinson’s Meet-Up group. I attended local and national meetings, and checked out Michael Fox’s Foundation. I checked out the Parkinson’s Foundation and sent out for educational materials. I enrolled in a research study at Emory on Tango and Parkinson’s. From the researchers and participants I felt a lot of support and the feedback from others about their response to medications, convinced me to start my formal treatment. I made an appointment with a neurologist specialist in movement disorders and took advantage of all supportive and educational programs offered by the Emory Parkinson’s Clinic. I am now on Sinemet and happy to have its benefits without the side effects. I have a full exercise program of activities that I enjoy, Yoga, Tai Chi, Body Works, Zumba, Karaoke, and I monitor my program by logging at least 30,000 steps in my Fitbit weekly. About once a month I join my Camino Group or Mushroom Club for exhilarating walks in parks across the Atlanta metro area. I keep my brain stimulated with classes at the senior center, discussing current events and studying world religions, learning new skills like mosaic, charcoal drawing and watercolor painting, and Spanish, reading and discussion of award- winning books in a book club, and travel, and getting together with friends for the opera, the theater, community events, cooking, and dining out. I am celebrating my 75th birthday all year, starting with my participation in the biggest 10K road race, the Peachtree Road Race on July 4. It is auspicious, that after trying to get into this race for 17 years, I finally won a runner number in the lottery for 50,000 runners from over 70,000 applicants. In late August-September, I will embark on a 45- day solo Rail Tour across America with the AMTRAK rail pass. I have friends and classmates in almost every State who I intend to visit and interview for a book that I will write about our grand tour in life as immigrants in the USA. After this I will walk for Parkinson’s in October in Atlanta. In December I will join my medical school classmates for our Golden Jubilee celebration in Manila.
I am living well with Parkinson’s.