Focus on what you can do

Editor's note: This corrects the caption on the photo of Allison Smith-Conway. The Foundation for Neurosciences Stroke and Recovery is not affiliated with Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian.

NEWPORT BEACH — Total well-being requires a balance between body and mind, but Parkinson's patients undergoing surgery and treatment often struggle to find that harmony, a therapeutic fitness coach said this week.

"Every one of the doctors have a specialty and they're incredibly good at that specialty," said Allison Smith-Conway, executive director of movement disorders for the Foundation for Neurosciences Stroke and Recovery. "But, there needs to be follow-through. There's an emotional aspect of being diagnosed that needs to be addressed."

Smith-Conway, 33, was diagnosed with Parkinson's in March, but she had experienced rigidity and anxiety — symptoms of the degenerative disease which typically affects older age groups — for more than two years before her diagnosis.

"The way to have an ideal life is to find balance between medicine and surgery, and family and social life," Smith-Conway said. "Without all those things, your life is not in balance and [you're] not at your ideal health."

Six weeks after her diagnosis, Smith-Conway underwent deep brain stimulation surgery — a new treatment option in which a transmitter inserted into her chest transmits electrical currents to her brain to aid in the production and efficient use of dopamine — at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian.

She now leads therapeutic fitness and mobility classes for patients through Parkinson's In Balance, a free program which offers individual, couples and family therapy, screening and assessing to create an individualized treatment plan, fitness education classes and activities, and other services all supported by donations through the foundation.

While support groups can be very therapeutic for a patient and the patient's family, not everyone feels comfortable sharing their personal story. As an alternative, Smith-Conway's Fun with Fitness classes combine emotional and physical therapy, she said.

"Going to support groups is good every once in a while, but I get tired of talking about it," said eight-year Parkinson's patient Sharon Miller of Lake Forest, who was diagnosed about age 52. " [Fun with Fitness is] a very constructive way to have relationships with Parkinson's patients and showing what you can you."

Focusing on what you can do, as opposed to what you can't, is particularly important as 40% of Parkinson's patients suffer from depression. Additionally, exercise is known to have mood-elevating effects, Smith-Conway said.

While the fitness classes are for all age groups and ranges of ability, other Young Onset patients, such as Ronnie Vaughan, 44, of Irvine find hope in following the example Smith-Conway creates.

"[Smith-Conway] is very good at making people feel comfortable," Vaughan said. "You do things in front of people with your same problem and it feels safe and secure. You know that it's OK to stumble, OK to fall, because we're all falling. It's just a safe environment."

The classes help improve posture and balance, Vaughan said.

"You're educated … in things that help you with every day activities from blowing dry your hair to putting on bra," Vaughan continued. "Things that every one else takes for granted. People need to come. So many start taking the drugs and just give up."

Fun with Fitness is at noon every Saturday at Crunch Fitness in Lake Forest and starting Tuesday, a weekly class will be added at noon at the Central Orange Coast YMCA in Newport Beach.

The classes typically have between 20 and 30 attendees, Smith-Conway said.

"They really appreciate that you're there," Smith-Conway said. "It's unbelievable. Some of the people can't get out of their chairs, but they find a way to get there."

More information about programs supported through the foundation can be found at http://www.parkinsonsinbalance.com.

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