If you’re someone I communicate with regularly via email, or we’re Facebook friends, then you probably already know what I’m about to divulge here. But if you’re one of those who have been following my Peace Corps adventure in South Africa only by reading my blog, this is probably the first time you will have read that I am back in Oregon, unexpectedly, a year earlier than planned.
This is because about three weeks ago I acquired a new medical diagnosis: Parkinson’s Disease, a nervous system disorder made well-known a few years ago by actor Michael J. Fox, who now devotes a lot of time and energy advocating for a cure or better treatments.
Here’s a definition I found on the Internet:
“Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that belongs to the group of conditions called motor system disorders. PD cannot yet be cured and sufferers get worse over time as the normal bodily functions, including breathing, balance, movement, and heart function worsen.
“Parkinson’s disease most often occurs after the age of 50 and is one of the most common nervous system disorders of the elderly. The disease is caused by the slow deterioration of the nerve cells in the brain, which create dopamine. Dopamine is a natural substance found in the brain that helps control muscle movement throughout the body.
“Other neurodegenerative disorders include Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
About 4 million people in the U.S. experience Parkinson’s, about 1% of the population. Twenty percent of the time it seems to be hereditary, according to one of the doctors I saw.
Sounds pretty serious. There are medications and other treatments available, I’ve learned, that slow or otherwise positively address the tremors that are often one of the first symptoms. These are readily available in the U.S. But in a remote Zulu village in rural South Africa? Not so much. I’ve been back from South Africa for about a week now – and still am officially a Peace Corps volunteer – but I’m on “medevac status,” meaning I have been evacuated to the U.S. because of a medical problem and Peace Corps has up to 45 days to make a decision about my fate, the two choices essentially being “medical separation” or return to my post in Africa. Today (April 8th) I had my second meeting with a neurologist, here in Eugene, paid for by PC, and his diagnosis was the same.
Regardless what happens, I have spent an incredible 14 months living and volunteering in South Africa and am honored to have had the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream of serving in Peace Corps. I’ve met countless people – PC staff, fellow volunteers, black and white South Africans – who have treated me wonderfully and taught me much about their cultures. Many treated me as if I was family.
Currently I am staying with my daughter’s family in Cottage Grove, a small city about 20 miles south of Eugene, while I follow the Peace Corps medical program’s process of determining what happens next. The outcome seems clear, given the second opinion of today, but I suppose it will take a few days to become official. Meantime, I will be looking for more permanent digs.