Parkinson’s Disease is Not a Death Sentence

August 15th, 2014 By: Betty Long

The tragic death of Robin Williams, an extraordinary comic and talented actor, was hard enough to grapple with as news came out that he was battling depression and addiction.  Then we learned through a statement released by his wife, Susan Schneider, that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and that that, too, contributed to his overall state of mind.

In a statement, she said, "Robin's sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson's disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.”

I am even sadder knowing now that he was struggling with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s.  Parkinson's is a movement disorder, which attacks the nerve cells in the brain, and results in trembling of the hands, arms, legs and face, eventually leading to slowness of movement, coordination problems and trouble walking or doing simple tasks. It is a progressive disease and only gets worse over time but you can live with it. 

There is no cure for Parkinson's disease, but doctors can offer Parkinson's disease treatment using medications and, more recently, deep brain stimulation that help patients cope with symptoms. Approximately 1 million people have Parkinson's disease in the United States, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. Men are more likely to get it than women and it usually affects people over 50.   The much loved actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with the disease in 1991 and is still working today 23 years later.

It is troubling and heartbreaking to think that Robin Williams felt such despair over the diagnosis of Parkinson’s.  In and of itself, it is not necessarily a terminal disease.  But, it is frightening especially, perhaps, for someone like Robin Williams with his razor sharp wit, his manic jumps through multiple comedic personas and his physical on-stage humor. 

I don’t know what it was like, what it felt like, for Robin Williams to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s but I do know that it is not a death sentence.  There is plenty of help.  Organizations like the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Parkinson’s Action Network provide education, support and direction.  And treatment is available. 

 My heart grieves for Robin Williams’ family, his friends, and above all, his three children.  To lose someone you love, at such a young age, for reasons only he knows, is tragic.  Someone who gave all of us so much joy and comfort, someone who made us laugh, and who clearly loved what he did (and did it so very well), is heartbreaking.

If we seek to learn from his untimely death, I hope two things are that even the funniest guy on the planet can get depressed and that Parkinson’s disease is not a death sentence.

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