After Jennifer Parkinson was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 32, she decided to fight back – literally.
Jennifer Parkinson had just given birth to her second child and was working as a registered nurse in Kentucky when she was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 32.
By the time she was diagnosed in 2005, it was pretty evident Parkinson had PD. Even her patients noticed the tremor in her right hand, and assuming she was nervous, would ask if it was her first day on the job. A neurologist told her she’d be confined to a wheelchair within 10 years and unable to care for her children.
“You can imagine how devastating that prognosis is,” Parkinson said. “But I am extremely stubborn and told him I was going to prove him wrong.”
Fast forward to 2009. By this point, Parkinson was a recently divorced single mom of two living in California on disability. Her symptoms were worsening, and she was struggling with two to three freezing episodes per day. Enough was enough. It was time to fight back … literally.
Parkinson had read about the benefits of non-contact boxing for Parkinson’s disease and decided to give it a shot. She walked into world-champion kickboxer Dale Jacoby’s studio in Agoura Hills, California, and began training.
“I found myself working out with other fighters – guys who were going to get in the ring that weekend – not other Parkinson’s patients,” Parkinson said.
“I was never the type of person to go to the gym. It wasn’t something I enjoyed doing. But I learned very quickly that this was helping me. When I didn’t work out, I felt awful. When I did work out, I had more energy and could take care of my kids. When I saw what it was doing for me, I knew I had to help others.”
By 2013, Parkinson was a certified Rock Steady Boxing coach and helped create the first Rock Steady Boxing affiliate in Costa Mesa, California. Then, when a local boxing gym opened in Newbury Park, California, Parkinson teamed up with Josh Ripley and Lisa Oliver to launch Title Boxing Club Newbury Park’s PD Fighters Program. The program quickly grew from 15 members in 2014 to nearly 100 in 2016.
“It was once thought that people with Parkinson’s could only do chair exercises because they couldn’t move very well. But the less you move, the less you are able to move. So, it’s actually better for people with PD to move more. The more you move, the better outcome you are going to have,” Parkinson said.
Pleased with the success of Title Boxing Club, Parkinson and Ripley decided to branch off to start a new nonprofit, Neuroboxing, so they could serve a broader clientele that would not only include those with Parkinson’s, but also people living with multiple sclerosis or recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Today, Neuroboxing has 10 locations throughout California.
Achieving the impossible
In 2015, Parkinson joined Vincent “Enzo” Simone’s “10 Mountains 10 Years” project – a group of mountain-climbers whose mission is to raise awareness for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease worldwide – and climbed the 11,000-foot active volcano Mt. Etna in Italy. By that point, she had been living with Parkinson’s for about 10 years.
“I was in pretty good shape. I had been hiking, running and boxing a lot, but nothing really prepares you for something of that nature,” Parkinson said. “When we were getting ready to start the climb when I looked up at this massive volcano and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I getting myself into?’ But I took a deep breath and off I went.”
Once she reached the top of the crater and took in the views, “It was magnificent – one of the greatest things I’ve ever gotten to witness,” she said. “It pushed me beyond what I thought I could do. You don’t really know what you are capable of until you put a challenge in front of yourself that seems impossible. Having those challenges has made me a better advocate and also defined how strong I really am.”
Her inspiring journey caught the attention of Anne Hathaway, who was getting ready to start filming the movie “Love & Other Drugs.” Parkinson was asked to assist Hathaway in prepare for the role of a young woman with young-onset Parkinson’s disease. Meanwhile, Simone was looking for a narrator for his “10 Mountains 10 Years” documentary. Parkinson asked Hathaway if she would consider doing it, and the actress agreed.
In July 2019, Parkinson joined Simone and his team of advocates on their hike to Magna Via Francigena, a recently discovered pilgrimage route to the Temple of Asclepius—the birthplace of healthcare and medicine. Unlike the seven-hour climb to Mt. Etna, this was a 115-mile, 10-day trek across Sicily in scorching heat. There were days when Parkinson began to doubt herself and wasn’t sure if she could keep going – until she remembered why she was doing it and for whom.
“I did this for all the people that I advocate for in our Neuroboxing program, all the people I knew who couldn’t be there, and also for my father passed who away in 2013 from Alzheimer’s. He was very heavy on my mind and on my heart when we were completing this hike across Sicily. He was always the one who told me I could do anything I wanted to do. I knew I had to do this for him because he is always with me,” Parkinson said.
“This was a very personal and very emotional journey for me. You’re forced to look inside yourself to discover your place in this world, what your role is going to be, and how something so transformative can change the way you advocate for yourself and others.”