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Exercise class gives hope to Parkinson’s patients

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 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Georgetown University Hospital Rehab technician Will Seitz, left, prepares to the ball to Parkinson’s patients John Gleeson, Lou Mckernan, Dick Curtin and Willem Nijhof. SHFWire photo by Silvana Ordoñez.Click on photo to enlarge or download: Georgetown University Hospital Rehab technician Will Seitz, left, prepares to the ball to Parkinson’s patients John Gleeson, Lou Mckernan, Dick Curtin and Willem Nijhof. SHFWire photo by Silvana Ordoñez.WASHINGTON – Thu Nguyen used to walk 5 miles every day, but now she relies on a wheelchair to move around.

Her life changed in 2009, when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Symptoms include poor balance, difficulty in walking, tremors, rigidity, slow movement of the body and memory loss.

But five months ago, Nguyen, 68, a retired bank teller from Falls Church, Va., found hope in the weekly exercise class for Parkinson’s patients at the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

About a dozen others with Parkinson’s have benefited from the hourlong class, which began in 2007.  The class, free for anyone with the disease, is sponsored by the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

“I see the different people that have the same problem. We talk to each other, so it helps with communication,” Nguyen said as her head shook left and right, a side effect of her medication. “This class is giving me the hope to be active again.”

Nguyen said arm and leg exercises have helped her muscles get stronger.

“I feel energized and I have fun,” said Nguyen, whose muscles tighten up, making it difficult for her to move around. “I do whatever I have to do to bring back my mobility, and the class is helping me with that.”

Nguyen is one of the approximately a million people in the United States living with Parkinson’s, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. The disease usually strikes those over age 50. Drug treatment can help relieve symptoms, but there is no cure.

Speech, physical and occupational therapists teach students in the Georgetown class a series of exercises that target posture, mobility, balance, memory, speech and motor problems, Lisa Ebb, a physical therapist at the hospital, said.

“The goal is to have fun, and hopefully people can learn something in each class,” Ebb said. “We work on balance and strength. They learn to be more flexible and safe ways to maneuver when walking and turning.”

Several studies suggest that regular exercise may slow the progression of Parkinson’s.

Angela Ridgel, an assistant professor of exercise science and physiology at Kent State University, said exercise is crucial for people with Parkinson’s.

“With Parkinson’s, you have the slowness of movement, so any type of exercise is going to help these patients,” said Ridgel, who is leading two research studies on Parkinson’s, including one that aims to build a “smart bike” for Parkinson’s patients.

With exercise, she said: "You are also going to develop muscle strength. When muscles get stronger, they’ll work more efficiently. You’ll be able to walk longer without fatigue, and you’ll be able to stand up out of a chair more easily.”

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Before passing the ball to Thu Nguyen, left, Ruth E. Foster, asks her fellow Parkinson’s Disease classmates if anybody can dance. Foster said she dances “all kinds of ballroom dancing.” SHFWire photo by Silvana Ordoñez.Click on photo to enlarge or download: Before passing the ball to Thu Nguyen, left, Ruth E. Foster, asks her fellow Parkinson’s Disease classmates if anybody can dance. Foster said she dances “all kinds of ballroom dancing.” SHFWire photo by Silvana Ordoñez.Ridgel assisted in an earlier study that showed that patients who rode indoor bikes at a fast pace improved their motor skills and mobility.

A variety of exercise classes, including dance and tai chi, are offered around the country to keep Parkinson’s patients physically active.

At Georgetown, patients do shoulder rolls, squats and take long steps in different directions to improve weight shifting. They also talk about current events to enhance their memories, Ebb said.

The class is helping to improve Willem Nijhof’s symptoms.

“The two times that we’ve been here now have convinced me that this is just the right thing that I need, so I am very happy I am taking these sessions,” Nijhof, 81, of Washington, said. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a year ago.  

Nijhof’s speech slurs, his body movements are slow and he falls asleep at inconvenient times. 

“I noticed the slurring of language and falling asleep at sessions like visiting friends,”   Nijhof, a retired World Bank economist, said.  

But in his first two classes Nijhof sees a change in his body.

“There is definitely an improvement. It can be attributed to the exercise therapy, including walking,” he said. His wife, Rafia Simaan, sitting next to him, encouraged him to speak more clearly and louder. “I feel very comfortable with these sessions, and I hope that I will show more and more progress.”

Reach reporter Silvana Ordoñez at Ordonezs@shns.com or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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