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It shouldn't take a celebrity to make us stop and think

Thursday May 28, 2009

John Canzano

The Oregonian - Donald Biehn loved his wife and raised three children. He was a farmer in Hood River who rode horses and worked acres of orchards filled with pears, peaches and cherries.

He died 11 years ago.

Parkinson's disease, doctors said.

I'd never heard of Biehn until this week. I didn't know he grew up in Klamath Falls, won a state wrestling championship as a high school senior and spent 20 years in the Air Force. I didn't know that the Vietnam veteran had invented the Cinnamon Pear. I didn't know that his hands began shaking one day, and that he eventually had trouble balancing himself, and that his family had to watch a man they viewed as 10 feet tall and bulletproof disintegrate, day by day, before their eyes.

He was 61 when he died.

I didn't know any of that. And I'm ashamed. Because I've known his son, Bobby, for a couple of years. I vaguely remembered, months ago, Bobby mumbling something about how brutal Parkinson's disease can be on its victims.

I didn't bother to ask how he knew until this week.

So well, yeah. Damn. Brian Grant has young onset Parkinson's. And the news hits the rest of us like a bag of bricks because when we think of Grant we see a man with a high-performance body who made a living by being graceful, fluid and athletic. He was in total control of his body whenever we saw him. And now, we're told, the former Trail Blazer sometimes has to hold his own hands to keep them from shaking.

"I played all kinds of sports with my dad when I was a kid," Bobby said, "but I never got to do those things with him when I was a man."

The disease stinks. And because of Grant's willingness to go public, we're talking about Parkinson's. And we're learning that it has no known cause or cure. And we're listening as experts tell us that fewer dollars are being spent on Parkinson's research than other diseases because it doesn't claim its victims out in the open.

It kills too slow, and too private, for most of us not involved to notice.

"Dad didn't want anyone to see him like that," Bobby, 41, said. "So he hid out, and my mom took care of him."

Uneasy times for Bobby now, see. His dad died from Parkinson's. So did his grandfather, years before. And researchers say sometimes it's genetic, and sometimes it's not. The theory goes that the disease is probably caused by a swirling combination of genes and circumstances.

Grant's struggle can raise awareness, you're thinking.

I suppose it already has.

It's never a good thing when a good man is handed a death sentence. But you hope for the best. And to me, Grant never looked as courageous as an athlete as he did as a father and husband in the sobering photograph that ran on the front page of this newspaper this week.

I know a lot more about Grant than I did a week ago. I know plenty more about Donald, too. I just wish it hadn't taken a professional athlete revealing he has Parkinson's for me to ask my colleague about his father.

The real disease is our inability to talk about the things that kill us until they devastate someone on our television screen. This is what afflicts us collectively. As if it's not serious, or worth being aware of, until the disease manifests itself in someone we all recognize. Meanwhile, our neighbors and coworkers and their relatives are being stricken with diseases worth knowing more about every day.

I guess that's the lesson a tough break teaches us sometimes. That it shouldn't take a celebrity to raise awareness. It shouldn't take Phil Mickelson's wife, Amy, being diagnosed with breast cancer for us to ask the women in our lives if they've been to the doctor for an examination lately.

It shouldn't take a tragedy for celebrities such as Michael J. Fox or Grant to raise awareness for Parkinson's. It shouldn't have taken Magic Johnson to test positive for HIV for us to start teaching sex education in schools. It shouldn't take Bob Dole and Rudy Giuliani talking about prostate cancer or Katie Couric's husband dying of colon cancer for the rest of us to be interested in knowing more.

It just shouldn't take something like this.

But too often it does.