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Carnett: Sharing our fight with Parkinson's makes us brothers

Wednesday October 17, 2012

Jim Carnett

Daily Pilot - My friend and I are more than pals.

We've become, well, brothers.

It's no different than what I experienced decades ago when I served in the U.S. military and had a number of Army "brothers." They were my closest buddies. I would have willingly given my life for them, and they — astonishingly —would have done the same for me.

That's not unusual. It's been that way with armies for centuries. Soldiers sharing foxholes fight not just for themselves but for the guys to their left and right.

I've often wondered since my service days why I never again cultivated such depth in a friendship. I've discovered it's not something that casually occurs. It requires a pickle of sorts.

For me, at long last, it's finally happened again.

Foxhole situations, by their nature, shatter stereotypes and barriers, and place a premium on selflessness. As scripture extols: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

Our culture assigns value to such relationships.

On the surface, my friend and I are different. He's scientific, efficient and systematic; I'm ad hoc and idiosyncratic. He's a Stanford University product; I'm Cal State Fullerton. He's organized; I'm ad lib.

But, like Kobe and LeBron, we enjoy assorted common traits.

Shared or special conditions can lead to connection and, ultimately, devotion. That's how it's worked for my friend and me.

We share the same malady: Parkinson's disease. In a sense, we've spent the past few years in a foxhole together. As a result, we know each other well.

Parkinson's is a degenerative brain disorder that causes nerve cells to die or become impaired. Patients exhibit a collection of symptoms such as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gate, cognitive problems or muffled speech.

The disease has no cure.

Parkinson's is progressive, and things get worse; never better. The best one can hope for is to reach a sort of homeostasis, or plateau, in which the progression of the disease is slowed. Parkinson's is never totally arrested, but its progression can, perhaps, be retarded apace.

Extended symptom stability, with little or no deterioration, is the ultimate objective. Rapid deterioration is an anathema.

As a Parkinson's patient, I can report that one constantly monitors one's symptom-set (if "skill-set" describes a person's collective abilities then "symptom-set" can be used to illustrate collective symptoms). Your facility for evaluating your own symptoms becomes so heightened that from day to day, though imperceptible to others, you can determine precisely where you're growing worse.

My friend-brother recently experienced a sobering moment.

He was vacationing with his wife in Hawaii. While taking photos on a cluster of slick rocks jutting into the sea, he took a nasty fall. He suffered numerous lacerations.

Thankfully, nothing serious eventuated, but he ceded some rather valuable real estate on his "peace-of-mind" beachhead.

You see, he and I are at about the same station in our journeys with this illness. We're six or seven years into our diagnoses, and we both have equivalent tremors and stiffness. So far, falling hasn't been a concern.

But all Parkinson's patients eventually reach a point where they must address the serious issue of balance and falling. It's a harrowing watershed moment.

Falls can be devastating, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Because I'm like minded, I know the first thought that crept into my friend-brother's brain after his tumble: "Have I just crossed a Rubicon? Am I now a risk for face plants?"

Seriously? I don't think so. I think a series of unique circumstances led to his scary Hawaiian episode. Still, a dangerous notion may have been introduced into his subconscious: "I'm a faller. When will I drop next?"

He can't allow baseless anxiety to encumber him. It's my responsibility to step in and reassure him that his life must continue at its normal expeditious pace. No countenancing fear.

If the situation were reversed, he'd do the same for me.

Brothers look out for each other.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.


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