Valley man actively takes on challenges of Parkinson’s Disease
Imagine being 44 years old and you’ve solo kayaked in the Gulf of Alaska. You’ve traveled to Ecuador, Africa, Panama, Thailand and other spots on the globe. You’re raising two young children, you’ve been in the presence of grizzly bears, and you’ve spent 28 years as a wildlife biologist. You run half-marathons; you spend weeks in the field; your life is a near-constant blur of activity.
Now imagine you’re 44 and you have a persistent twitch in your finger that you’re sure is related to an existing injury, but your physical therapist tells you to see a neurologist. And the next thing you know you’ve been diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease (PD): a neurodegenerative disease that causes tremors, limb rigidity, gait and balance problems, and/or a slowing of movement. It’s a debilitating disease, it’s regressive, and there is no known cure.
This is how Methow Valley resident Brian Lance’s life changed in 2002—with a diagnosis.
Now, 16 years later, while Lance hasn’t exactly embraced that diagnosis, he has gracefully accepted it as just one component of the package that is Brian Lance. “I’m a lot of things other than someone with PD,” he says. “Outside of the PD I’m otherwise healthy and living my life.”
Indeed, Lance is a still an active cyclist and hiker, and this Sunday (Aug. 13), Lance will set off on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), taking five days to walk from Hart’s Pass to Rainy Pass with other “Parkies” (people who have Parkinson’s Disease), a couple of pack llamas to carry some of the gear, and a cadre of support hikers who will help the Parkies across tricky sections of trail and assist with camp chores. The following week, another group of Parkies and their supporters will hike from Rainy Pass to Suiattle River. These two hikes comprise the annual “Pass to Pass” event, now in its third year.
The Pass to Pass hike is the brainchild of Bill Meyer, a long-time PCT hiker who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2009. Meyer organized Pass to Pass as a way to call attention to Parkinson’s Disease, demonstrate how exercise can relieve Parkinson’s Disease symptoms, raise money for research into the disease, and show the world how even rigorous adventures on the PCT are within reach for people with the condition.
In some ways Lance is the poster child for not letting PD slow you down, fully embracing the “living large” philosophy that many who suffer from PD have chosen to adopt. Despite neurological changes that affect his balance, speed, strength and speech, Lance maintains an active lifestyle. “I went all over the world with my family,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Lance notes that living with PD has changed his perspective. Like many people, prior to receiving his diagnosis Lance assumed that PD only affected elderly people. “But Young Onset PD has its own whole population and set of issues,” he says. “People like me are raising families, still working,” he says. “My kids [who were 3 and 6 when he received his diagnosis] never really knew me without PD.”
Lance wants to use his experience as a young man with Parkinson’s Disease to help raise awareness about PD in general, but in particular about how Young Onset PD affects young individuals and families. “I want to encourage people to be active,” he says. “Get off the couch and use it or lose it.”
Movement and exercise are critical to managing the symptoms of PD, says Esther Hammerschlag, Lance’s wife, who will join Lance and the other Parkies on the Pass to Pass hike. She adds, “The movement piece is just one reason why we live here in the valley.”
Lance notes that exercise not only improves mental and psychological outlooks, but it is also physically beneficial to those with PD (as well as to those without the disease, of course). “Exercise is neuro-protective and neuro-restorative,” he says. “It slows the progression of PD. I treat exercise like medicine.”
In addition to exercise, Lance treats his body well through stress reduction and diet, plus medication. “Reducing stress is part of the reason we moved here from the Seattle area,” says Hammerschlag. “In Seattle we’d drive around from doctor to doctor and we were so tense! Now we have an easy and pleasant drive to Spokane to see a movement disorder specialist. The Methow Valley is a low-stress environment.”
Lance also had what he called a “life-changing operation” in 2011. “They drilled into my skull and placed electrodes on the portion of my brain that governs movement,” he says. “Then there is a neurotransmitter in my chest, which sends stimulation to those parts.”
Lance is not unduly worried about the upcoming Pass to Pass hike, but he does have some minor concerns. “Over time my steps have gotten shorter, so I increase my pace to compensate,” he says. “This results in a ‘stutter step’ or a shuffle, and it’s easy to trip.” And even for those with uncompromised balance, hiking on an uneven trail with roots or rocks can be challenging. This is just one way the support hikers help the Parkies, as balance assistance.
“The way the support hikers help us on the hike mirrors the support we get from people every day in our lives,” Lance says. “It’s very important, and I’m very thankful for it.”
Good role models
Parkinson’s Disease is the second-most common neurological disorder after Alzheimer’s, says Lance, noting that 50,000 people in America are diagnosed with PD each year; 10 million people worldwide live with the disease. Actor Michael J. Fox can receive substantial credit for his impact on international awareness of the disease.
When asked about Fox, Lance says “He’s a god.” He continues, “He’s been very unselfish. A lot of famous people who get diseases just go inside their holes, but he took advantage of his fame and leveraged it to increase awareness of PD. He put it to good use. He has a foundation [the Michael J. Fox Foundation] and 100 percent of the donations turn into research dollars. He’s tireless.”
Lance, too, has hopes of generating research dollars for Parkinson’s Disease in addition to raising awareness, through his participation in the upcoming Pass to Pass hike. Links to reputable PD research foundations like Fox’s can be found on the hike’s website at passtopass.org/donate/.
Hammerschlag points out that people with PD serve as good role models in their daily lives. “To live well with PD you need to exercise, stay active, take care of your body, get enough rest, challenge yourself and reduce stress,” she says. “Isn’t that what we all should do?”
And espousing the calm gratitude that all of us would do well to embody Lance adds, “In some ways I feel like a lucky guy.”
The public and media are invited to attend the Finish Line Celebration at the Rainy Pass Northbound PCT trailhead from 1-2 p.m. on Friday, Aug, 17, as the hiking team emerges from the woods at the end of their five-day hike. For more information visit passtopass.org.