People with Parkinson's disease experience a wide variety of symptoms and, although the illness is progressive and irreversible, there are choices. Medication helps but so does attitude.
Some patients take their pills and hope for the best.
Some people fight.
It's been a year since Charlie Farrell and his wife Jan Blue embarked on their personal mission to serve Parkinson's patients. Twice a week their enterprise, Rock Steady Boxing - Western Slope Colorado, helps a growing number of fighters maintain and improve their balance, agility, and strength through non-contact boxing drills and exercise.
Keeping active is important. Charlie ought to know. He has Parkinson's.
It was 2013 when Charlie was diagnosed. He and Jan had both retired from the U.S. Air Force and they were looking forward to a life of leisure and purposeful activity when those plans took a detour.
"This disease is not for the faint of heart," Charlie said, "It's taught me patience, perseverance, and humility. But the people I've met and those I've helped make it all worthwhile."
"The camaraderie and friendships that develop among our fighters is unbelievable," Jan added, "We are constantly surprised how thankful people are not only for our program but for the support they gain from working with others."
It's been a busy year. There are three Parkinson's support groups in the region -- one in Cedaredge, one in Montrose, and one in Grand Junction. Between the support groups and physician referrals, the couple now has twenty fighters on their roster. An average session involves between eight and twelve participants.
Fighters meet twice a week in Delta at Anytime Fitness, 300 Stafford Lane. The group begins with stretching followed by high intensity non-contact exercise tailored to each person's needs and abilities. This is where the challenge begins. Some participants can work-out without assistance; some need help from a 'corner person.' Each session ends with a sharing activity. There is no cost to the participants but each person pays a gym membership of $36 per month to use the facilities at Anytime Fitness. The membership allows them to use the gym 24/7 for additional workouts.
Dawn Anderson, who manages Anytime Fitness, is thrilled to partner with the Rock Steady program. "This group inspires the entire club," she said, "Rock Steady Boxing has changed a lot of lives. It's neat to see the group so engaged and happy."
Well, yes, the fighters definitely enjoy themselves. While Dawn was describing her experience with the program, the boxers were joyously exercising and shouting and whooping in the background. During a break, a few fighters shared their stories.
Connie Tollefson of Orchard City has been with Rock Steady Boxing for a year and she beamed when asked about her participation. "I'm grateful because I'm not an exercise person but I know I'm stronger now. This program gives me confidence and it's helped my attitude. It's a great emotional support to workout with these people. I didn't know anyone before, now I consider them close friends." Her husband Gary serves as her corner man and he's definitely noticed Connie's changed attitude, a great improvement from the low point where things started. The couple recalls the moment three years ago when she was first diagnosed with Parkinson's. "The doctor said 'I can tell you exactly what's wrong,'" said Connie, "and then he handed me a box of Kleenex."
Deann Thomas of Eckert is a volunteer with the program. She's a retired physical therapist who has been impressed with Rock Steady. "I've treated Parkinson's all of my career and studies show that this kind of focused intensive exercise slows the progression of the disease. It's the most comprehensive overall workout I've ever been involved with. A typical physical therapy session is a half-hour. This is one-and-a-half hours of stretching, strength, and balance exercises and a great cardio workout." She too has noticed positive effects on attitude. "This is not a clinical setting," she said, "People here are less apprehensive, less guarded. It's an atmosphere of fun and camaraderie."
Ed and Peggy Baxter of Cedaredge have been with the program from the beginning and they agree that the Rock Steady workout is intense but also rewarding. When Peggy was first diagnosed, the couple went to an information seminar and they were disheartened to see so many somber and debilitated people. "At Rock Steady Boxing," said Peggy, "the people are happy to be here. It's one of the most positive things I know to do with a disease that can be unforgiving. It's inspirational to see others -- including yourself -- doing things you didn't think possible. It's good to see folks at different stages, all fighting rather than giving up."
Tom and Carolyn McKee of Grand Junction have been with Rock Steady from the first. Of Tom's progress Carolyn said, "It gives him confidence. This is like one big family. We look around and see everyone exercising and feeling good." Tom looks forward to coming and he's noticed changes. "It gives me a reason to fight," he said.
Nick Hoppner of Montrose joined the Rock Steady Boxing program a few months ago. His wife Ginny is his corner person and avid supporter. "Parkinson's can be a very lonely disease if you try and fight it all by yourself," he said. "Here you're surrounded by people at different levels all working together to approach the disease at our own level." He noted that a physician who diagnoses Parkinson's typically observes the condition and prescribes medications to reduce the symptoms leaving the patient with no ownership. "Exercise improves my mood and gives me ownership. I have Parkinson's; Parkinson's doesn't have me. You can't imagine what a triumph it is to have abilities restored that you thought were gone forever. It's joyful to be at a point in life where I can recapture some of the joys of childhood and thumb my nose at my disease. I love to hit the bag."
What does the future hold for Rock Steady Boxing - Western Slope?
Charlie and Jan want to continue recruiting new Parkinson's fighters but to serve a larger population both agree that will require additional volunteers. Volunteers are needed to serve as "corner persons" to provide encouragement and help the fighters with exercises. The corner role is often filled by spouses but anyone with time and energy to give can help. Meanwhile, the current crew is stepping up to do more. Both Connie Tollefson and Deann Thomas are taking the online course to become Rock Steady Boxing coaches. Soon they'll be able to help new recruits.
The couple's program is an affiliate of the national Rock Steady Boxing, a non-profit organization with over six-hundred locations nationally and worldwide from Boston to Beijing. According to their website, Rock Steady Boxing is dedicated to giving hope to people with Parkinson's disease by improving their quality of life through a non-contact boxing-based fitness curriculum. Both Charlie and Jan have attended Rock Steady training and are certified coaches.
Anyone interested in joining the group as either a fighter or a volunteer helper can contact Charlie and Jan at 970-399-7272 or visit their website: http://westernslope.rsbaffiliate.com/