Carnett: A pure voice stolen by Parkinson's

My heart goes out to one of my all-time favorite singers, Linda Ronstadt.

I'm a bigger fan of hers today than ever.

A superstar pop artist of the 1970s, her smash hits include "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved." She later segued into such diverse musical genres as country and mariachi.

Ronstadt recently announced publicly that she has Parkinson's disease.

So do I.

She was diagnosed eight months ago and claims that she's no longer able to sing a note. Neither can I.

Of course, to be truthful, I've never been able to carry a tune. That's nothing new.

Lest I be misunderstood, the purpose of this column is not to make light of Miss Ronstadt's condition.

"No one can sing with Parkinson's," she recently told an interviewer.

Well, that's mostly true, though I have a number of Parkinson's friends who'd dispute that. They perform publicly with an Orange County group of 50 dedicated Parkinson's singers called The Tremble Clefs. And they do a bang-up job.

Parkinson's is a degenerative brain 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 and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gait, cognitive problems and muffled speech.

Though not all Parkinson's patients exhibit every symptom, it's been my observation that a fairly high percentage seem to have vocal problems. I've met hundreds of Parkinson's sufferers in the seven-plus years since I was first diagnosed.

Voices often become "smaller" with this disease. Many have difficulty making themselves heard in normal conversations. The Parkinson's voice becomes soft and reedy.

The Tremble Clefs was established for the express purpose of helping Parkinson's patients rehabilitate their voices. It's a way to fight back. Patients are able to exercise their voices — and learn proper breath control — by singing.

I can only imagine how devastated Ronstadt must have been when Parkinson's began stealing her crystal clear voice a number of years ago. She didn't realize at the time that Parkinson's was the culprit.

Though I haven't had a problem with my voice — sometimes my wife accuses me of speaking too loudly — I have experienced vocal issues.

For many years I was involved in public address announcing and public speaking. I was hyper-vigilant about my enunciation.

Perhaps 18 months before my diagnosis I noticed that I'd developed a slur. I recall the first time I became aware of it. I was in a recording studio, creating a radio public service spot, and felt like I had mush in my mouth.

What the heck?

Many weeks later — without having told a soul — I finally disclosed the situation to my wife, Hedy. Like Ronstadt, who said she knew something was amiss but couldn't pinpoint the cause, I too had no clue Parkinson's was involved.

"Have you noticed, honey, that I've developed a slur with my speech?" I tentatively asked Hedy one evening, afraid of what her answer might be.

"What?" She seemed truly mystified. "Trust me, if you were slurring I'd be the first to tell you."

But to me it was palpable. Months later the slurring was confirmed by my neurologist. I stopped doing radio work and, a couple of years later, gave up my public address chores.

My slurring has progressed only slightly since I first noticed it years ago. It's vexing but not debilitating. Other symptoms — like tremors, rigidity and slowness of movement — have come upon me since the slurring and have advanced at a much faster clip.

Ronstadt notes that she now suffers from shaking, and sometimes uses poles for balance when walking. She occasionally employs a wheelchair.

Linda Ronstadt is in my thoughts and prayers. She'll discover, as most Parkinsonians do, that though the unrelenting progression of this illness can be unhinging and demoralizing, life's richness need not be diminished.

It's our choice.

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

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