Impressive feats by Parkinson's patients

A look at some of the amazing people with Parkinson's disease at the World Parkinson Congress in Montreal.

Running, dancing and painting in the face of adversity

Acrylic painting by Montreal artist Niska. (Morgan Dunlop/CBC)

This week Montreal hosted the World Parkinson Congress, a conference that unites neurologists, therapists and patients from around the world to share the latest medical advances and therapeutic innovations for Parkinson's disease. 

I spoke to several attendees who are achieving impressive feats of athleticism and artistry in the face of the degenerative disease. 

Running around the world

Since Alex Flynn was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years ago, at the age of 36, he set out to run or walk 10 million metres by 2014 and raise more than £1 million (or about $1.6 million) for research looking into the disease.

Alex Flynn is speaking Friday at the World Parkinson Congress in Montreal. (Alex Flynn)

He has run and walked across much of Europe and the United States including the Bavarian Alps, the Dolomite Mountains in Italy and the Colorado Rockies.

Flynn is on target to finish in January, but he already has his sights set on a new goal: rowing across the Pacific Ocean in a six-metre boat. 

"I might go off and run across the continent, but everyone with Parkinson's has their own Everest. It's about finding your challenge, pushing your envelope, because that makes life worth living," says Flynn. 

When tremors cease at the canvas

The Montreal artist who goes by the name Niska has been painting his signature abstract acrylic art for more than 45 years.

After being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he faced the possibility that he would no longer be able to paint. Since then, he has found some relief from some of the disease's symptoms through painting. 

The clean lines in his paintings show that when Niska puts brush to canvas, his tremors cease. 

Niska now uses his art to serve as a message that creativity helps people overcome their physical impairments. 

Dance therapy 

Parkinson's disease is characterized by tremors, stiffness and poor balance, and patients are prescribed daily exercise to decrease the intensity of these symptoms.

But what about dance? 

Sarah Humphrey says dancing has helped her with some of her symptoms. Humphrey is part of the Parkinson's dance project in Montreal, a combination of physiotherapy and dance therapy. 

Sarah Humphrey is a Montreal dancer with Parkinson's disease.

"One symptom of Parkinson's is freezing — when your feet are glued to the floor. Sometimes I'll get stuck, and I have to breathe deeply and start singing a song to myself, and the rhythm kind of frees up the message to my feet to move," she says. 

Humphrey's experience is backed up by recent preliminary research by Italian neurologist Daniele Volpe, who found that Irish dancing was more effective than traditional physiotherapy in improving several symptoms of Parkinson's disease symptoms.

The head of Neurology at the University of Montreal's teaching hospital network, CHUM, Dr. Michel Panisset, says there isn't much evidence supporting Volpe's theory, but he says the therapeutic effect of dance is a growing area of research.

"I think the complexity of the exercise is very good, and there's probably also an impact of the music," says Panisset.

Members of Parkinson's Dance Project perform for delegates to the World Parkinson Congress in Montreal:

Loreen Pindera/CBC

About the Author

Morgan Dunlop

Morgan Dunlop is a reporter with CBC Montreal.


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