My Learning Curve is Badly Bent

Hearing my newest diagnosis, “Parkinson’s Disease” at the largest Veterans Affairs Medical Center among America’s chain of 152, plus more than 1,200 smaller health care facilities, from Guam to Puerto Rico, offered a certain guilty thrill.

The VAMC at Long Beach, CA, has served me for some 30 years: ear infections, two new hips, eyeglasses, bereavement group, chronic depression therapy and more, but nothing as mysterious as

“PD,” an incurable degenerative nervous system disorder

They know what it does to an estimated one million sufferers, but not why this enigmatic affliction is triggered.
Moreover, while it strikes about one in every 100 persons, the PD population has seemed to be rising. But this is misleading. Onset of PD comes about age 60,and progresses slowly. A century ago American life expectancy kept the tally low as people died of other ailments sooner, never getting a clear PD diagnosis even if present.

They called it “The Shaking Palsy” in those days, a horrid, hopeless, wasting sickness    

So on a characteristically warm Southern California fall day last year–one of five million vets in VA health care–I got my official PD diagnosis and found it intriguing. And I want to learn more.

Some of the lessons in my relatively brief course of study are rather painful and there are few precautions, beyond watching your step. Falls are common, for starters.

I find it intriguing that I developed a few possible symptoms in 2011 and 2012, but cannot recall beginning to experience falls, until after doctors predicted the possibility.

These are often the result of turning to step in a different direction, stumbling on an obstruction or literally falling over one’s own feet. Fatigue can cause a person not to lift his feet high enough if he is walking in rough terrain.  A poor sense of balance is common with PD, causing a forward or backward-leaning pitch, particularly on stairs, when carrying a box, or bags of groceries.

One of my first mishaps was caused by a misstep while carrying four 2-liter bottles of soda, each pair in two plastic grocery bags up an exterior stairway. The motion of stepping upward first right foot, then left, set the bags swinging alternately forward and backward.

Their twisting motion cost me my fragile balance and as my legs crossed under me I had sense enough to let go of the bags and drop down, barking my shins three times while gracelessly somersaulting to the driveway below.

Unfortunately we have no photo to demonstrate the perils of not calling a grocer who delivers.

As for written material, the Department of Veterans Affairs is quite accommodating, offering a stack of pamphlets and brochures to acquaint we new PD diagnosees with what the future may hold for us. Some will be fortunate and others less so, depending on the luck of the draw.

My luck with Uncle Sam still stinks, if you will.

Back in 1963 military officials complained that only one prospective soldier in every five draft-registered young men was fit for induction, due to medical, moral or mental  grounds. Four of those substandard specimens were in line ahead of me and received train tickets to go back home. I had to board a train going the other way, to Fort Ord, to become a infantry trooper.

Today, about 200 years after Parkinson’s Disease was recognized as a dreadful illness with singular characteristics and targeted for study, guess what?

Medical experts estimate it affects about one in every 100 men and women in the world and 99 lucky ones were ahead of me

They do not have Parkinson’s Disease

I do!

And this time I can’t look forward to a discharge. I can’t look forward to a miracle cure, though one may eventually come for others who are younger. I am too old now to look forward to much at all.

The past few months–the brief period in which it seemed exciting to share the news I have Parkinson’s Disease–strike me as foolish indeed, because I knew so little about it. I’m learning, but I yearn to know those facts–unrevealed at this stage–that may make it easier.

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