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Laughter is the best medicine: Local author with Parkinson's disease turns blog into a book

Wednesday January 02, 2013

Mara Knaub

Yuma Sun.com - Beverly Ribaudo was attending a karaoke contest as a spectator when she needed to take a break. On her way back to her seat, she crossed the dance floor. She has Parkinson's disease, which caused her to walk slowly and rigidly.

Suddenly Ribaudo noticed people were cheering her, and she realized she had stepped into the middle of a dance contest. Michael Jackson's “Thriller” was playing, and they thought she was pretending to be a zombie.

Not being one to miss an opportunity to poke fun at herself, she played along -- and ended up winning the contest. The audience loved that she stayed in character the rest of the night.

Except Ribaudo wasn't playing a character. Parkinson's disease causes her to have difficulty with walking, movement and coordination.

But she's not one to wallow in misery. Rather, she believes that laughter really is good medicine, especially for people suffering from Parkinson's.

The disease destroys nerve cells in the brain that make dopamine, which helps control muscle movement. Without the chemical, the nerve cells in that part of the brain cannot properly send messages. This leads to the loss of muscle function.

“Dopamine is also the chemical that makes you feel good. Laughter stimulates the brain and produces dopamine,” Ribaudo explained.

The Yuma resident turned her experiences with the disease into a popular, nationally read humorous blog, which can be found at www.ParkinsonsHumor.com and YumaBev.com.

She managed to turn the difficulties caused by Parkinson's into funny stories, always using the tag line: “Have a Happy Parkie Day!”

“If you've gotta have Parkinson's, you might as well laugh about it,” she has said.

However, she didn't think anybody would actually read her blog. Then the Michael J. Fox Foundation featured it on its website and the blog exploded. She now has 76,000 regular readers in 130 countries.

“It simply amazes me that my little stories can change someone's day from bad to good,” she said.

“I have an unusual sense of humor,” Ribaudo added.

It's “unusual” because “Parkies” tend to be depressed because of the lack of dopamine.

But Ribaudo has been able to hold on to her humor. “No matter what I write, I put humor into it.”

She has a knack for turning sad situations into funny stories, such as the time she was stuck in the bathtub because she was too stiff to get out and her husband was out.

She's compiled these funny stories into the book, “Parkinson's Humor: Funny Stories about My Life with Parkinson's Disease.” She decided to turn her blog into a book due to reader requests.

“A lot of people don't have computers. For people like that, I wrote the book,” she explained.

Her first self-published book contains 214 pages of funny stories with some educational information “snuck” in.

All profits from book sales are donated to Parkinson's foundations, such as the local PD support group and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. So far, Ribaudo has donated $750.

The book is available in large-type paperback for $17.99 from Amazon.com or as an e-book for $7.99 from iTunes, Kindle and Barnes and Noble. Or order a book directly from Ribaudo at YumaBev@gmail.

For more information or to request a presentation, call her at (928) 288-2575.

Finally, a diagnosis

Most people are diagnosed with Parkinson's at an advanced age. Ribaudo's symptoms began in her late 30s.

She was living in Orlando, Fla., and working as a bank teller when one day she reached up to grab the drive-thru tube and pain shot up her back. The pain did not go away.

She was 39 years old and doctors couldn't find a reason for it. She quit the bank and got an office job. Then her index finger wouldn't work and she couldn't write. By the end of the year, her hand shook.

Ribaudo and her husband moved to Bullhead, Ariz., in 2002. She got a job at the local hospital for the insurance benefits and access to specialists. Still, no one could find a cause for her symptoms.

They returned to Florida to take care of her dad, who had Parkinson's, until he died a couple of years later. Doctors in Orlando couldn't figure it out. She was misdiagnosed with essential tremor. When she asked if it could be Parkinson's, she was told “definitely not.”

By 2007, they had moved to Wellton. By then she could hardly move.

“I was going downhill. I could do less and less every day. I was days away from a wheelchair,” she said.

This is when she took it upon herself to figure out what was wrong with her. She got an alphabetical list of neurologists within a 500-mile range and wrote to every one on the list. She sent out a few letters every week. No one replied.

She got to the end of the list – Dr. Julio Zonis in Yuma. Ironically, he was the first and only one to respond. “We know exactly what you have,” he told her. “Parkinson's”

She was skeptical after being told she definitely didn't have the disease. Dr. Zonis asked her to try the medicine. She did, and by the next evening she could move again.

Finally, at the age of 47, she was diagnosed properly. The date is ingrained in her brain: Aug. 30, 2007.

“To me, Dr. Z is probably the most wonderful person in the world,” she proclaimed.

In October she underwent deep brain stimulation, a surgical procedure in which a battery-operated medical device was implanted in her chest and connected with wires to her brain. The device delivers electrical stimulation to parts of her brain that control movement, blocking the misfired signals that cause symptoms.

Ribaudo is now moving with more ease and there's no discernible tremors.