This story begins in 1998 when I was in my early forties and kind of a newlywed, married just three years at that point. We enjoyed such things as hiking and camping, and my husband even convinced me to try rappelling off a two hundred-foot cliff, and I actually spent the night in a cave. We enjoyed moving and being outdoors.
I had noticed a few odd things, like I had trouble getting my left arm in a sleeve. If it happened occasionally, I would not have been concerned. But it was happening almost all the time. We were hiking locally and my husband was walking behind me and asked why my left arm wasn’t swinging like the right. I had no idea why, but it was starting to freak me out. Then I noticed that my left index finger sometimes “twitched” and I didn’t seem to have control over it. I was dropping things and was clumsier than usual. What could these 4 things have in common?
I started at my family doctor’s office. He ran a few tests and then sent me to a specialist who seemed baffled. So I was sent to neurologist number one who ran tests (a.k.a. poked and prodded) that led nowhere. So he sent me to the nearest learning hospital at Ohio State University’s Neurology Department. This doctor gave me more tests and said he was inclined to think it was Parkinson’s Disease (PD) but since the average age was sixty-five and I was forty-three, that must not be the answer. The “expert” at OSU explained that there was no definitive test for PD. It was only by ruling everything else out that would narrow it down to PD. And to be sure, they could give me PD medications and if my symptoms improved, then they would know it was PD. I had seen several not so wonderful neurologists, one who laughed at my questions and one who argued with me about my symptoms. Then I found a wonderful doctor. I drive about forty-five minutes to see her. I’m sure I would drive ten times that if I had to.
Anyway, I was given one medication until new symptoms appeared and I was given an additional drug. I was up to four drugs at the point where I had been dealing with PD for about nine years. My symptoms had become fierce. I was falling, I didn’t walk right because I dragged my left leg. My balance was greatly affected, so much that I couldn’t walk in our back yard without holding onto my husband. I had traveled to South Carolina for a girls’ trip and while there, I became intensely aware of my problems, and for the first time I felt handicapped. And I didn’t like it, not even a little bit.
At about the same time, I saw my neurologist for my regular visit. While there, she told me about a new medication that was now available. She gave me a low dose of this new medication. Within a couple of weeks, all of my symptoms virtually disappeared. Someone meeting me for the first time would never guess I had PD. And those people who had seen me at my worst were brought to tears when seeing the improvement for the first time. I felt inspired to do something big, really big. I needed a way to celebrate.
I thought about what I would do and came up with a plan/goal. I wanted to go to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and hike twenty-five miles in five days. In looking back, I’m not sure why I chose this goal. I had never hiked that much in such a short period of time. And now I was in my fifties and fifty pounds overweight. I’m not sure why I thought I could do this.
I had the goal and realized that maybe I could get sponsors to raise money for PD research. So I asked my family, friends, and co-workers to pledge money per mile and everyone I asked said they had no doubt I could do it. If I did make it the twenty-five miles, I would raise a little over six hundred dollars. This wasn’t huge money but I figure every dollar they receive help them get closer to finding a cure.
I called my wonderful friend Ellen whom I had known for more than thirty-five years, to see if she would have interest in going with me. She said yes without hesitation. So we were off on an adventure, one that I could not have done alone. Ellen was the perfect hiking buddy because she was physically fit, she has a can do positive attitude, she would push me if I slowed down, but the push would be a gentle one, and thirty-five years ago we were on our first grown up vacation right out of high school right there in the Smokies. Can you say “meant to be”?
We arrived at the Smokies National Park and got maps so that we could plan our week of hiking. We knew that ultimately we needed to average five miles a day to reach our goal. We also realized the weather could play a part in our success. One day we hiked in the pouring rain and not a nice warm summer rain, but a cold April rain that chilled us to the bone, but we got our 5 miles in that day. The following day was beautiful so we chose several trails for our goal. We were close to the end of our hiking for that day and Ellen asked me if I realized how far we had gone that day. I honestly didn’t know. I had just kept putting one foot in front of the other. We had hiked over nine miles!! I burst into tears, I think because I was overwhelmed by what we had done and complete exhaustion.
We began to add up our miles for the week and realized we only needed four more miles and we could go home a day early. WOW! We had met a lot of nice people along the way and then Ellen told them why we were there, they were very supportive. We even got a free meal at the restaurant next to our hotel. The manager said our story was the most inspirational thing he had every heard and paid for our dinner. The most inspirational story? Something I did? An overweight middle aged woman?
Not only did we reach our goal, we actually hiked 25.6 miles in four days, and had fun doing it. This trip taught me several things. I am capable of doing difficult things when it is important to me. And I am fortunate to have such a good friend as Ellen.
A month later my husband and I went to the Smokies and hiked sixteen miles, including one trail that was a significant challenge for me. It reminded me to slow down and pay attention to what I was doing so I wouldn’t trip. And I made it without mishap.