Saturday, September 10, 2011

Parkinson's is NOT Contagious

Anxiety, like acid, etched lines into the forehead of the obviously well-to-do woman sitting at the table next to ours. Her green eyes were fixed on the jerking arms and legs of the young man who had recently been seated at a table in the corner of the restaurant patio. Seemingly unable to look away, the faces of another half-dozen patrons betrayed the same mixture of fear and helplessness. Soon it seemed that everyone in the restaurant was watching the man's body as it waged a civil war, one uncooperative limb seeking to restrain another. Distracted by the obvious dyskinesia, few noticed the face of the struggling diner as he strained to hide the shame. He seemed to know that his dignity was in the process of being strangled by the stares of those who pretended to be looking at their meals. In apparent self-defense his pride seemed to take refuge in listening attentively to his female table mate. It was as if his companion was saying, "Don't worry. Just ignore them".

"I wonder what he's got, poor fellow. I hope it's not contagious” the tanned lady behind me ssaid, voicing her ignorance in too loud a whisper. She shifted position uneasily in her chair as she redirected her gaze from the unlabeled disease carrier back to her dessert. I wanted to apologize to the man for the woman's ignorance. I wanted to explain to his audience why the new dinner guest struggled to stab bits of salad on his plate and then negotiate them into his mouth. I wanted to enlighten my fellow observeers that, despite their charmed life of diamonds and dessert, it was lack of knowledge that fueled their fear, making man in the corner a "threat" to some. I wanted to tell him that I understood why he was seated on the fringe of the veranda that Californian evening. But even though we shared a diagnosis, I knew I didn't really understand; at least not yet.
Apathy and fear of the unknown can easily drive into isolation those who cannot help but be different. Parkinson's disease, unlike many other (even life-threatening) maladies, expresses itself in antisocial symptoms. The obvious rhythmic tremors of hands, arms, legs and even heads, the wooden soldier-like stiffness, frozen facial features and stooped posture all betray the brain’s loss of dopamine. While little pills can prop up our pride temporarily, they only give a short term dose of "normality" before reality returns with a new round of randomn movements.
But Parkinson's disease is not contagious. No one needs to panic. While daily dramas may play out in the lives of those with PD, it isn't likely to create pandemonium. It is not like the movie we saw last night, "Contagion", which portrayed a pandemic of panic. At least those of us who are "infected" need not fear passing it on through a handshake or even an errant cough.
Perhaps, all of us with Parkinson's need to brave some discomfort or embarrassment and embrace instead a new more inclusive definition of "normal". Or better yet, why don't we just replace "disabled" with "different". Perhaps we have a calling to portray Parkinson's positively. It is a disease to be understood, not pitied.
I was proud of that unknown person with Parkinson's as he staked out his place on the patio of that restaurant in Southern California. I expect it took some courage, but the longer he stayed the less attention he attracted, as if proving that, whatever onlookers believed he had, it was not contagious.

1 comment:

  1. Bob this is heart wrenching I can so relate to it .We are different but we are amazingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things .Thanks for sharing this I hope it may give some people a glimpse of what it is like .