Thursday, October 10, 2013

On Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor

"For the life of man is but a span,
He's cut down like the flower.
He makes no delay, he is here today,
And he's vanished all in an hour"

 ~ May Song, from the singing of Martin Carthy

Like its victims, Parkinson's Disease is slow. According to Neurologist Pinky Agarwal, the first subtle symptoms of the disease, for instance loss of sense of smell, may crop up 30 years ahead of the classic hallmarks tremor, stiffness, and slowness.

It's difficult not to think of the disease as beginning with the tremor or stiffness which you can point to as emblematic of your problem. But to appreciate the complexity of Parkinson's, we need to re-frame the way we perceive it.

Parkinson's is a brain disease, right? Well, yes, eventually. But before it reaches your brain it is silently and for the most part, painlessly, doing damage as it creeps through your gut and olfactory system.

Parkinson's is a disease of movement, Right? True, also of emotion, sleep, thinking, focus, balance, and the list goes on.  

Parkinson's is a disease of the elderly, right? Absolutely, but it is also a disease of  the middle-aged and even the young. Apply Dr. Agarwal's 30 year time-frame to my case. I was showing symptoms that allowed diagnosis when I was 43 years old. That puts the start of my disease around age 13.

Chances are I've been dealing with PD just about as long as I have been doing anything. Considering this, the temptation is to wonder how much was lost to disease without my even realizing it. I ponder what it cost over those years to cope with the subtle-but-ever tightening  squeeze of this patient boa constrictor. I brood over what I might have been able to do had I not been engaged in this lengthy unconscious struggle.

Yet, to suffer from Parkinson's Disease is to enjoy a privilege. I don't mean some perverse notion of how suffering somehow makes us better. What I mean is the sheer fact that in times gone by, it was a major achievement to live to be old enough to manifest the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.

According to Wikipedia, Upper Paleolithic (stone age) humans had a life expectancy of 30 years at birth. (By odd coincidence 30 years is the same length of time Dr. Argawal put on the process of PD building in our systems prior to announcing itself with motor symptoms.) Neolithic humans had it even tougher: 20 short years flew by, and it was time to meet your ancestors.  You say "Bah! That was long ago." Granted. What was it a mere 100 years past? In the early 20th Century, at birth: 31 years. So much for nostalgia.

Seen in this light, it's all gravy past 30. And here we can learn from Parkinson's Disease. Take the long view. I'd rather be swallowed by a boa constrictor at 55 than be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger at the tender age of 20.


Adele said...

I LOVE how you think. Even is all I can think now is "and I don't like it very much."

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Thank you Adele. This particular piece suddenly zigged a completely different direction than where I thought it was going. It's less like "thinking", and more like "discovering". As for disliking Parkinson's Disease, ditto.


Patient-Online said...

Well done, Peter. I found myself amused and then, at the same time, thinking. This timeline is daunting and raises the ultimate question: how does it start and why-- why you, and why me? Thanks friend. Dan

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Hi Dan, good to hear from you. The people whom I've met with Parkinson's Disease seem to come in the same shapes and flavors as people who don't have it. They are not significantly better or worse, careful or foolhardy, smart or stupid, deserving or undeserving. Which makes the question ring that much louder. Why me? Why anyone? It's not comforting, but the best answer I can come up with is "Why not?". For this reason, the why question seems less fruitful than the what question, courtesy of Tolstoy: "What then must we do? I am sure that "play your guitar as much as possible" is part of the reply :~)

Patient-Online said...

Yes, indeed Peter. We shall keep on playing as long as we are able. Thank you, friend!