It’s been several months since I posted a blog entry, so I think it’s time for an update. For those who might have missed it, I am home from Peace Corps service in South Africa, a year earlier than planned, because last March I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It’s a neuro-degenerative disorder in the same classification of disorders as multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. About 1% of the population in the U.S. has Parkinson’s.
It’s a progressive illness, so it will only get worse, but for most people the progression happens over the course of many years. I thought that I would have been fine for another year and would have liked to complete my two-year commitment to Peace Corps. But the people who got to make the decision, PC medical staff in Washington, D.C., believed otherwise and I was “medically separated” and sent home.
Peace Corps sent me to a neurologist of my choosing in Eugene, OR and paid for it so that I could get a second opinion. That doctor confirmed the diagnosis of the neurologist in Pretoria. This was not really a surprise. Early on I did some Internet research and found a list of 10 early warning signs of Parkinson’s. I had 7 of them. Any one of them, by itself, might not be noticed or of great concern. But having 7 of 10 was diagnostic. The symptom that first caught my attention, a slight tremor in my left hand, is not appreciatively worse than it was in the beginning. I’ve also experienced a little trouble with gait and balance and have taken to using handrails when going up and down stairs. I may have to get a cane or walking stick at some point. And my voice is softer, another common symptom. There are medications that can help with the symptoms, but thus far I’ve chosen not to start them. Treatment so far is having my recent first follow-up appointment with my new neurologist, and joining a support group at one of the local hospitals for people with “early onset” Parkinson’s. I’m thinking about contacting Michael J. Fox, perhaps America’s most famous person with Parkinson’s, to see if he wants to do a PSA with me! Other people you may have heard of with this disorder are Mohammed Ali, Janet Reno (attorney general under Bill Clinton), and singer Linda Ronstadt.
I have stayed busy by working part time, 10 or 15 hours a week, at Lane County Developmental Disabilities, from which I retired in 2010, and volunteering. I also have joined the boards of directors of a small non-profit that supports people with developmental disabilities, and the local organization of returned Peace Corps volunteers, West Cascade Peace Corps Association. Like similar organizations all over the U.S., it promotes PC at local festivals and events, and raises money to help fund projects of volunteers from Oregon.
I’m also writing a book, my second, about my experience joining Peace Corps and living in Zulu villages for 14 months. (The first was a novel about mental illness). I’ve written 46,000 words, about half a book, and will have more time to write now that my projects at the county are completed. Below is an excerpt that talks about some of the medical aspects of training. When I am finished, by spring of 2014 I hope, I’ll have a book release party as I did before. It was a lot of fun and I hope to raise some money for Peace Corps projects in Africa. Thanks to all my friends and family for continued support.. . . . and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
Excerpt from “Dancing With Gogos” —
. . . . It was our first exposure to Arlene, a 50-ish certified nurse practitioner, who had been a PC medical officer in several other African countries before coming to South Africa. She had kids and grandkids in the Kansas City area. She was married to Solomon, a native of Ethiopia and a Pretoria architect. Arlene was universally loved for her dedication to volunteers’ healthy experiences, her sense of humor, her flexibility, her willingness to go the extra mile on behalf of PC volunteers and her willingness to take PCV issues to administration. I had the privilege of getting to know her better than most volunteers did because she was the PCSA staff liaison to the Volunteer Support Network. This meant periodic meetings of all of us, some of them at Solomon and Arlene’s home. Once we all went out to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant and Solomon ordered for us all so we could have a truly Ethiopian experience, including eating from community dishes with our hands, common in many African countries.
One shot that we didn’t get from Arlene shortly after arrival in Bundu was for yellow fever. The South African government required proof of this inoculation before arrival in the country, so we all had to have that done in our home towns, at Peace Corps expense, about $150, then forward the results to Washington. I went to a local clinic that specializes in serving international travelers. The doctor had been around for a long time and had a reputation for competence, so I wasn’t worried. But, arguably, his “bedside manner” could have been better. He was nice, but reminded me of some of the clients with Asperger’s Syndrome I had known in my professional life. Asperger’s is on the “autism spectrum” and people with the diagnosis often are quite intelligent, but aren’t known for their social skills. As he prepared the injection the doctor told me, bluntly and without preamble or hint of a grin, “I’m obligated to tell you that for every one million people who get this shot, 20 of them turn yellow, vomit blood and die.” He wasn’t laughing, but the odds were good so I told him to go ahead. I survived to laugh and write another day! . . . .