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S. Elgin man successfully fighting Parkinson's

Wednesday December 15, 2010

Daily Herald - Lee Bender was overweight, suffering from painful gout and arthritis, and trying to mend a broken heart after his wife of 49 years died of breast cancer.

After a time, Bender, a lifelong entrepreneur with a farming background, got things back on track. He traveled to China for business and later married a Chinese woman.

“I got married again in October of 2003 and then I started to become aware that something was wrong with me,” said Bender, now an 84-year-old resident of Heritage Woods assisted living center in South Elgin.

Bender said the joints in his body suddenly were “just not working properly,” and he was correct in thinking something wasn't right. Upon his return to Chicago, he was diagnosed at Rush University Medical Center with Parkinson's disease.

“After the diagnosis, it progressed pretty quickly with the tremors and the weakness,” Bender said. “I offered my wife a divorce at that time, and she said no, and stuck with it for five years, but then it was too hard and she eventually did leave.”

Move helps
Moving to Heritage Woods last year allowed him to get the assistance he needed, and the time to learn about the steps he would need to take to combat the disease.

While discouraged, Bender had overcome previous setbacks and he again relied on the strenuous weightlifting and stretching exercises he employed, as well as introducing alfalfa and wheat grass more regularly into his diet.

“People with Parkinson's get thin and weak because their digestive system is no longer working properly,” Bender said. “Adding those greens to my diet helped tremendously.”

Despite his best efforts, Bender was having plenty of “bad days” and learned that a major culprit of Parkinson's disease was an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, with attacks coming more regularly.

“Sometimes, I get it (anxiety attack) so bad I want to jump through a window,” Bender explained. “I wanted to get into more research and, while I am hoping for a cure, I know that will take time, so it was more important to me that people with Parkinson's somehow have better quality of life.

“We can't keep saying there will be a cure someday, and keep taking medicine without doing other things to help ourselves.”

The chair helps
One of those things came in the form of a vibrating lounge chair, called the Smart Lounge, which his son Edward created to market and sell to spas and chiropractors.

“They weren't too interested in it because they feared it would take away from their massage therapists and other things they already offered,” Bender said. “When my son heard I was not doing well, he said I might want to try this lounge chair, and it has turned out to be a lifesaver for me.”

Each day, Bender spends a half-hour or longer on the vibrating lounge chair with its accompanying soothing music piped through headphones.

“Once I get done with it, I can pop right up without my cane, and I feel so much better,” Bender said.

Bender's daughter, Linda Bender-Laleian of Carol Stream, points to the lounge chair as a major turnaround for her father.

“When things were getting so bad for Dad, I told our sons that Grandpa probably wasn't going to make it through the year, and that was in 2008,” Bender-Laleian said. “But after just three weeks of using the lounge chair, it was just amazing how much he improved.”

Bender-Laleian has been helping her father spread the word about the exercise, nutrition and relaxation devices that can help a Parkinson's patient.

“We talk to doctors, and they all don't seem to get it right away, but we did get about 20 of the lounge chairs in at Rush in Chicago, so the awareness is coming,” she said.

Bender has been a poster child of sorts for the Heritage Woods complex, helping initiate a program called “Fit and Strong” at the center, encouraging residents to fight old age with exercise.

“I was fortunate that I was strong when the Parkinson's hit,” said Bender, pointing to the strong shoulders and forearms he has had since his days as a farmer in Washington during World War II. “Most elderly people have other problems that hurt their chances to exercise, but there are still things you can do.”

An inspiration
When he read a recent story in the Daily Herald about Paul Ruby of Geneva and his fight with Parkinson's disease at an early age, and the foundation he has created for funding research, Bender was excited to meet another local person with the dedication and desire to fight back against Parkinson's.

“I met Paul Ruby and he is a wonderful person and a real gentleman,” Bender said. “I am hoping I can help his foundation and get others to do it as well, and I was glad to tell him about my beliefs in improving the quality of life.”

Ruby, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 43, felt Bender provided an emotional lift during his visit.

“Lee's enthusiasm and personal drive to do anything possible to slow the progression of the disease is amazing,” Ruby said. “He is the perfect role model for people with Parkinson's disease and I am grateful he reached out to me.”

Bender plans on reaching out to any Parkinson's patient, doctor or researcher who may be interested in the war he is waging on the disease.

“It takes a lot of motivation to fight Parkinson's disease,” Bender said. “The lounge chair is saving me right now, but that can't do it alone.

“I feel sorry for people in their 70s who can't move because of illnesses,” Bender added. “When I first made my decision to fight back, I really didn't know how to do it. But I researched it, worked at it and learned as much as I could, probably more than most doctors know.

“I have a lot more good days now than bad ones,” Bender said with a wide grin.