Mesa Musings: High school buddies with Parkinson's reach out

Last week's column on Parkinson's disease elicited some unexpected responses ("Fighting a daily battle," Nov. 29).

In the column, I described my six-year battle with the disease.

Two gents whom I went to school with in Costa Mesa — and haven't heard from in decades — independently contacted me. They both suffer from the disease as well.

That brings to four the number of fellows I attended Lindbergh School, Everett A. Rea Junior High and Costa Mesa High schools with who have Parkinson's.

A coincidence? Are we canaries in a coal mine?

Four is a fairly large number (and there may be more than that) out of a graduating class of 300. That's 1.3%. The national average for Parkinson's is about a third of that, though that figure hasn't been adjusted for age.

Parkinson's, a degenerative brain disorder, causes tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gate, cognitive problems or muffled speech.

Moving to Costa Mesa in 1951 at the age of 6 from Newport Beach, I bathed in and drank the city's brown well water until I was in my teens. My family never gave it a second thought.

Could that have been a contributing factor?

I remember bathing at my grandparents' home in San Diego when I was about 10 and being amazed at the clarity of their water.

Some researchers feel environment plays a role in the onset of the disease. Others say no, it's genetics or some other factor.

Perhaps my Parkinson's came from my exposure to pesticides in this area in the 1950s and '60s. A friend of mine with the disease, who grew up in Santa Ana Heights in the '50s and '60s, thinks that's the case with him. He has no family history of the illness.

I was also exposed to pesticides in the military. Every summer evening at my military installation in Korea, a truck would drive through the compound and spray a heavy white cloud that, within seconds, dropped every bug in our barracks.

Or maybe I developed Parkinson's because my father and my maternal great-grandmother both had the disease.

Three of my four Parkinson's classmates have been battling the disease for two years or longer. The fourth's diagnosis came recently.

"I figure I've had it for a couple of years," he said, "but I was diagnosed two months ago."

He's so early into the disease that I'm the first fellow-sufferer with whom he's spoken. He's the first in his family to contract the disease, and he seemed genuinely relieved to talk with someone who understood his circumstances. His early experiences mirror mine.

Because I've been involved in support groups for years, I've talked at length with dozens of other Parkinson's patients. I've gained insight from those discussions.

My classmate peppered me with questions the other day, and we probably talked for 45 minutes. My wife and I plan to take him and his wife to a Parkinson's support group meeting after the new year.

My friend said that a couple of years ago he began noticing tremors in his right hand and leg. The tremors came intermittently, mostly during times of stress.

Another early sign he encountered was difficulty brushing his teeth. When he mentioned that, I laughed. That happened to me.

"Brushing one's teeth is a simple process, right? But my arm wouldn't move smoothly," he told me. "It seemed weird. I finally started holding my toothbrush steady while I moved my head to the right and left."

I did that, too, and ultimately graduated to an electric toothbrush.

As I mentioned in last week's column, the good news is that Parkinson's patients don't have to endure this illness alone.

My high school buddy seemed relieved to find that out.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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