I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in August 2016. At the end of my first exam, the doctor took out his smartphone to schedule our next visit. “Would you like to come back in six months or are you comfortable waiting a year?” A year? I was just diagnosed with brain disease and I’m offered a follow-up visit in a year? What about the brochures or instructions on what to do?
It soon became clear – learning about Parkinson’s was on me.
You might remember the book, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I didn’t learn about Parkinson’s when I was five. To learn about it I had to read research papers, books, anecdotal stories from people with Parkinson’s and I watched videos on YouTube. I had two takeaways from this exercise. First, excessive studying will drive you crazy. Find a doctor you trust and go live your life. And second, keep moving. Leading a sedentary life with this disease will kill you.
I wasn’t sedentary prior to my diagnosis. I was a golfer who got plenty of exercise walking to and from the cart. Who was I fooling? I needed to up my game. I needed to find an exercise that pushed my body and my dopamine.
For the most part, the list of recommended activities for Parkies include yoga, Pilates, boxing, walking and swimming. I knew that I didn’t want to swim because I was afraid of the water and the idea of getting into a pool surrounded by thousands of gallons terrified me. So what exercise did I pick? Swimming. Why? Because it’s hard.
I joined the Jewish Community Center (JCC), which is a large facility that has multiple gyms, classes, a school and, most importantly, five pools. I signed up for twice-a-week swim lessons. My goal was to learn all four strokes in three years.
My first few lessons were humbling. I was a 52-year old hanging onto a cement wall learning how to kick while kids were swimming all around me with the greatest of ease.
After about a month I was pretty confident in my ability to swim without my instructor. I decided to solo on sunny Sunday afternoon. I hopped in a lane with a middle-aged man and after three laps he told me I had to get out of the pool.
“Why do I need to get out?” I asked.
“Because you suck and you’re slowing me down.”
As if hearing that I sucked wasn’t humiliating enough I suffered another indignity – I hung myself on the lane line on my way out of the pool.
In the two years since the “you suck” incident, my swimming experiment has evolved into 25-yards in 22-seconds for the freestyle and 26-seconds for the backstroke. Although not quite as good as my daughter, she is willing to race me all day if it means I’m keeping Parky at bay.
I swim nearly every day. I cut through the men’s locker room at the JCC on my way to the pool. It isn’t the most direct route but I do it because I’m able to see four old Jewish men sitting around discussing the events of the day. On the forearm of each is a numbered tattoo.
I look at their arms and think, “If they can survive the Holocaust, then you can survive Parkinson’s.”
Oh, and that man who kicked me out of the pool? He doesn’t do that anymore. I swam next to him a few weeks ago. “You’re good now,” he said.
Kevin Woo is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. His portfolio can be found out www.kevinjwoo.com.