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Mesa Musings: Fighting Parkinson's is a daily battle

Just like clockwork, I awake every morning at 5:45.

No matter the season, no matter the time zone.

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While in Russia last summer — 11 time zones to the east — I awoke at 5:45. I arose this morning at 5:45.

My body's a precision machine, though lately it hasn't felt much like one, certainly not of the "lean-and-mean" variety. My machine shows considerable wear and corrosion.

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One reason for my daybreak punctuality, I believe, is because my body is craving medication. I have Parkinson's disease, and, by 5:45, I haven't "fed the beast" for 10 hours.

As I arise, my stomach feels queasy and I frequently have a dull headache. But, after swallowing my meds, I'm fine in a matter of minutes.

When I first awaken, nothing moves but my eyelids. I feel as rigid as a drill sergeant's khakis. Recurrently, one of my arms has been numb from the elbow down when I wake up. That's because I don't turn over frequently in bed and often sleep on appendages.

As part of my strategy to get up, I struggle to roll onto my back. That accomplished, I slide my feet over the edge of the bed and ease them to the floor. Haltingly, I lift my trunk into a sitting position.

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My father had Parkinson's many years before I was diagnosed. He reached a point where he could no longer roll over in bed. And climbing out of bed unaided was out of the question.

I'm not there yet but, because Parkinson's is progressive and has no known cure, it's not defeatist to say that I may be there one day.

Along with many of my friends who struggle with Parkinson's, I choose to do my utmost to stave off the "inevitable."

When I was diagnosed six years ago, I endeavored to hide my condition from friends and associates. I didn't want people feeling sorry for me. What unadulterated ego!

I'm now blatantly honest.

Parkinson's is a degenerative brain disorder that occurs when certain nerve cells die or become impaired. The cells produce a chemical — dopamine — that facilitates smooth, coordinated body movement.

Patients can experience tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, balance difficulties, a shuffling gate, cognitive problems or muffled speech.

Dopamine is what I pump into my system at 5:45 a.m. (and several other times during the day). It gets me moving. I then take a brisk 90-minute walk, after which I reward myself with a latte.

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I demonstrate several classic symptoms of this malady, including stiffness, rigidity and tremors.

I have friends who tell me, "Jim, if I didn't know you had Parkinson's I'd never have guessed on my own." That's kind, but they don't see me struggling to get out of bed in the morning.

Emotionally, this disease can knock you off your pins, and many Parkinsonians suffer from depression. I've discovered that attitude is a personal choice, and attitude makes all the difference in combating this illness.

It helps, of course, to possess a deep faith, and to have a caregiver (like my wife, Hedy) whose motto is: "We're in this together."

Frankly, I don't know what I'd do without her. I'm sure she didn't realize 37 years ago as we exchanged our vows what she was getting into.

I belong to a great Parkinson's support group that meets twice monthly at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, and I'm a member of a weekly Parkinson's exercise group at Hoag Health Center in Newport Beach. The groups are my lifeline.

At Hoag, eight to 10 other Parkinson's patients and myself meet with two animated and enthusiastic instructors, and work on cardiovascular fitness, strength, flexibility and mobility. We also care for each other.

With Parkinson's, the choice is simple: You can give up, or you can fight. I choose to be proactive.

And, thankfully, I don't have to do this alone.

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

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