March 21, 2016

Patient fights Parkinson’s disease one punch at a time

Hand, Wrist and Elbow | Patient Stories


In 1964, Muhammad Ali declared he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” against his intimidator, heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Liston was terrifying by all standards and commentators debated whether Ali would even show up for the fight.

Ali won that fight, but it would shy in comparison to the fight he would begin facing 20 years later. In 1984, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42.

Parkinson’s disease is a slowly progressing neurodegenerative brain disorder. A person’s brain slowly stops producing dopamine. As the dopamine in the person’s body decreases, motor skills, balance, speech and sensory functions begin to deteriorate. Most people’s symptoms take years to develop, leaving them undiagnosed.

The disease itself is not fatal, but complications from the disease rank as the 14th leading cause of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The famous boxer and heavyweight champion is just one of the million Americans who live with Parkinson’s each day.

Another one of those million is Paul Anderson, a patient of OrthoIndy physician, Dr. Jeffery Whitaker. It was the common denominator of OrthoIndy that allowed me to meet this one in a million fighter.

Being diagnosed with Parkinson’s

In 2009, Paul Anderson’s wife thought he had suffered from a stroke, as his entire right half of his body began to drag. After neurological testing, the diagnosis was bittersweet. He had not suffered a stroke, but was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The year following his diagnosis would be challenging as his health declined.

“It’s an emotional, depressing state you get into. Unfortunately, a lot of doctors will tell you to go home and they will make you comfortable. But I was at a point in my life where my wife had to help me stand up and put my clothes on. I was failing miserably at work. The time frame between finding out and being able to do something, you find out what a degraded state you’re in,” said Paul.

Paul’s life took a turn in the right direction when his wife pushed him to do something he thought he would never do: boxing.

Giving boxing a try

Rock Steady Boxing is the first gym in the country dedicated to fighting Parkinson’s. Founded in 2006 by former Marion County Indiana prosecutor Scott C. Newman, diagnosed at age 40, the Indianapolis-based nonprofit gym’s goal is to provide an affective form of physical exercise to people living with Parkinson’s.

After experiencing a dramatic improvement in his health and daily functions, Newman was able to open a small gym and boxing ring in a donated corner of a corporate employee gym. His passion to help others like him brought Kristy Rose Follmar, a former world champion boxer, to Rock Steady as a head trainer, which she remains as today. The addition of Christine Timberlake, whose husband has Parkinson’s, in 2008 added another dynamic to the already growing gym.

As time passed, Paul began to strengthen not only his body, but his spirit as well.

A change in attitude

“We have a good attitude at Rock Steady, we have an upbeat attitude. We joke around and are able to have a good time. With that comes a camaraderie that I don’t believe you can match with any other set of circumstances,” said Paul. “Others enjoy each other’s company because they collect stamps, they enjoy cars or like flying. Our common denominator is something we didn’t ask for, but it’s something we have to live with. I’m healthier now than I’ve been in the last 20 years.”

When Parkinson’s sneaks in, it disconnects you from your body. Rock Steady Boxing gives you the chance to relink that disconnection.

Rock Steady’s approach to fighting Parkinson’s may be unconventional, but it is effective. By providing non-contact boxing-style fitness, Rock Steady Boxing programs improve not only the members’ quality of life by delaying the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms, but their self-esteem and sense of self-worth as well.

The constant rotation of workouts works the body to adjust to all planes of motion. It improves speed, strength, balance, reflexes and flexibility. At Rock Steady you learn how to fall and know there will always be someone there to help you up when you can’t do it yourself. The tough love attitude at Rock Steady left Paul using the phrase, “I can’t not.”

“We see when they come in the gym the progress of what Rock Steady does for them; it makes a huge difference in their lives. Everybody that’s in there has been through what you’re going through and it just goes hand in hand, so we pay it forward,” said Tom. “Two gentlemen took me under their wings; they guided me, prodded me, they pushed me, they put me in a position where I couldn’t say no. With that, I saw considerable gains within the first several months.”

Six years after his diagnosis, Paul is in the best shape of his life at age 62.

“It’s been life changing. I went from not being able to put my shoes on to being able to do whatever I want to do. It doesn’t negate the Parkinson’s, but regaining control of my muscle movement, getting my reach where it belongs and getting my walk back from baby steps because of my insecurity and lack of balance has been overwhelming,” said Paul, “What others find minimal, I find a milestone.”

Wrist injury

In December of 2014, Paul experienced another potential setback. A cyst appeared on his wrist and it had begun to affect his boxing, as it was rubbed consistently by his boxing gloves. When given a list of physicians to choose from, Paul immediately recognized Dr. Jeffery Whitaker’s name.

“I had met Dr. Whitaker a month prior. My grandson was playing his last game of the season and broke his humerus. It was Dr. Whitaker who placed the titanium rod in his arm. I met him at the end of the surgery and we talked a little bit. No more than a month later, I was back at OrthoIndy getting my own surgery done. My only concern was if my Parkinson’s was going to affect the surgery, and he said it wouldn’t be a problem. After that, I completely trusted him”

Paul didn’t hesitate to immediately get back in the ring post-surgery.

“I limited what I did, but I wasn’t going to stop. I wasn’t going to hurt myself, but I wasn’t going to slow down either.”

A return to activity

Since his diagnosis, Paul has run three 5K’s and plans to run the Indianapolis Mini next year. He credits his growth to all that Rock Steady has done to help him grow beyond the disease that many see as a death sentence.

“Paul is determined to get the best he can out of life. He is a fighter, literally,” said Dr. Whitaker.

As Paul has grown, Rock Steady Boxing has also continued to blossom. In the nine years since its founding, Rock Steady has gone from Newman’s donated corner to its own, exclusive facility in northeast Indianapolis. Feeling limited on who they could reach, Rock Steady affiliates have been made possible through Rock Steady Training Camp. The camp allows the “Rock Steady Method” to be shared with physical therapists, occupational therapists, boxing coaches, personal trainers, activity directors and anyone else who works with those with Parkinson’s.

The Rock Steady Method is quickly on its way to becoming an international movement as affiliates were established not only in the United States, but Canada, Italy and Australia.

The original Rock Steady in Indianapolis now serves 200 members, ranging in age from their late 30’s to early 90’s. Rock Steady’s “no man left behind” mentality supports all stages of Parkinson’s, now offering 17 classes to zone in on different skill sets, as each class is fit to tend to the individuals participating that specific day.

“Rock Steady is probably the most inspirational program that I’ve witnessed with my patients. It provides confidence in regaining lost abilities and bringing them to function at a regular level in the face of illness. Anyone who has Parkinson’s or Parkinson’s symptoms should really take a look at this program because it’s such a positive, life changing experience,” says Dr. Stephen Kollias, an OrthoIndy physician who has had patients attend Rock Steady Boxing sessions.

A sense of community

The sense of community at Rock Steady is something no one can ignore; you feel it as soon as you walk through the doors. You feel the passion, the drive, the struggle and the love that each member experiences. For many of its members, like Paul, they box to live.

Entering and witnessing the community that is Rock Steady is truly a privilege and humbling experience. From an inspiration wall of Rock Steady’s accomplishments and pictures of its members, to the logo; largely painted on the back wall with its fist punching the air, the gym itself gives off a sense of pride and confidence that transfers to those fighting against Parkinson’s.

Paul took the chance to do this own guiding, prodding and pushing as he guided me through one of the tailored workouts for a Tuesday night class. He guided me through speed bags, heavy bags, double end bags and even let me try on a pair of boxing gloves; my own boxing crash course.

Despite my lack of grace, Paul was patient and kind. Introducing me to other members of the gym, I got to see how much heart is truly involved in Rock Steady. I saw tattoos of the Rock Steady logo, I saw tremors, I saw helping hands, I saw motivation; but most of all I saw hope.

“We know we can’t beat it, but we can sure give it a black eye before we go.”

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Whitaker please call 317.884.5168.

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