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Carnett: The early, subtle signs Parkinson’s

“You don’t suppose he knows he has it, do you?” I whispered to my wife.

We were checking in with an agent this past summer in Vancouver, B.C., preparing to board an Alaska cruise ship. The man waiting on us was obviously retired and working in a part-time capacity for the cruise line. He quite obviously enjoyed his job.

He had a ready smile and a quick wit, but there was something else about him that I noticed. Call it intuition informed by personal experience.

“My guess is that he doesn’t know,” Hedy whispered back to me.

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In our coded language, we clearly understood one another.

He was a tall, distinguished chap, probably in his late 60s. He was also exhibiting classic signs of Parkinson’s disease. Not overtly, mind you, but in very subtle ways. They weren’t necessarily symptoms that anyone unfamiliar with the disease would even notice.

My wife and I know something about Parkinson’s. I’ve had it for eight years. My father had it for 10 before he died in 2006.

Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disorder with no known cure. It causes nerve cells to die or become impaired, and patients exhibit such symptoms as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, loss of facial mobility, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gait, cognitive problems and muffled speech.

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Was it my responsibility to publicly call attention to my hunch? Did I have the right to disclose my suspicions to the Vancouver gentleman himself — or was it fitting that I blow it off, as I eventually did?

In the 60 seconds that he dealt with us, he demonstrated slight but obvious symptoms. He had a limited facial mask (lack of expression or affect); a barely perceptible tremor in both hands; a slight shuffle to his gait; and a scarcely discernible slouch in his posture.

But I wasn’t about to inform him of my suspicions. I felt strongly that it was improper for me to assail him. I’d have liked to have had a few moments to sit with him and gently broach the topic. But we stood at the front of a line of impatient travelers — dozens of them — and he was busy.

It was frustrating.

Had we talked, I might have been able to steer him in an appropriate direction, but that wasn’t my prerogative. I couldn’t lob a grenade at his feet and then saunter away.

If he doesn’t yet know he has the disease, he will. Sooner rather than later. He has probably already noticed that Father Time has taken a toll on his physical being. He’s no doubt slowing down. There’s doubtless been a perceptible diminishment of physical and cognitive skills.

Those outcomes are inevitable with Parkinson’s.

I first noticed my own symptoms years ago, on my own. Because of family history and my familiarity with the disease, I was able to self-diagnose a year before a neurologist did.

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I kept noticing nagging little warning signs that added up to Parkinson’s. Though I tried to dismiss them, I couldn’t. They refused to go away.

I began suspecting Parkinson’s when I detected a tremor in one finger; a slight speech issue (an almost imperceptible slurring — obvious to me, but unnoticeable to others); a minor hitch in my gait; and a failure to swing my arms naturally as I walked. Slight though the symptoms were, they added up to Parkinson’s.

But I have many friends whose diagnosis came as a bolt from the blue. They had no idea they had the disease.

One friend went to the ER one afternoon for dehydration. The nurse taking his vitals asked his wife: “So, how long has your husband had Parkinson’s?” The wife was stunned. “He doesn’t have Parkinson’s,” she responded.

“I’m sure he does,” the nurse replied. The diagnosis was confirmed days later by a neurologist.

I hope my Vancouver friend seeks treatment soon. Early diagnosis can be helpful in managing the disease.

I’m sorry we were unable to talk.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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