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Shouting Down Parkinson’s Disease

Posted on September 23, 2015

If you tell Betty Uchman that she’s loud, she will probably consider it a compliment. If you point out her big gestures in yoga class, she will probably be proud. Being big and loud is something that’s taken some effort, but with the help of Fort Loudoun Therapy Center’s LSVT BIG and LOUD therapies, Uchman has mastered the art of expression, once again.

A couple of years ago, a local senior center was in need of a yoga instructor. Not just any yoga instructor, but someone experienced who could help residents learn relaxation techniques for dealing with the anxiety that is often brought on by Parkinson’s Disease.

Betty UchmanWhen Uchman was approached by someone from the Tellico Village Kiwanis Club about the need, she readily volunteered her services. She’d been teaching fitness for many years, her passion was yoga, and Betty loved the idea of sharing her knowledge and skills to help others.

But something surprising happened between the time she agreed to teach the class, and the time she actually stood in front of her new yoga students for the first time. Uchman discovered that she herself had Parkinson’s Disease.

In fact, Uchman was diagnosed just a day before she taught her first class. Talk about a coincidence.

Uchman, now 72, is still teaching yoga even as she works through the effects of her disease. Her oldest student is 97, and her youngest is a small child.

Parkinson’s Disease came as a complete surprise to Uchman. “I would never, ever dream that I would have Parkinson’s, ever,” she says emphatically. “Ever. Never, ever.”

The disease crept up on her quietly, as Parkinson’s often does. The first thing she noticed was that she couldn’t walk as quickly as she used to. She began to have trouble with simple tasks, like cutting her meat at dinner, and her voice became more and more quiet.

Falling became a concern. Escalators frightened her. Her strength began to wane.

“I thought it was just part of the process of aging,” Uchman says. “I wasn’t blaming anything, but I was looking for answers, and accepting the answers I came up with.”

In talking to her doctor during a routine physical exam, Uchman happened to mention that driving was making her nervous to the point of trembling. Her doctor referred her to a neurologist. The diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease was clear.

Uchman did her homework, studying up on the disease, and didn’t like what she learned. “What irritated me the most is that it’s a disease, but it’s not a fatal disease,” Uchman says.

The progressive nature of Parkinson’s seemed very unfair. “I thought ‘this is going to be the end of my life,’” Uchman says, “little pieces of myself and my body were starting to go.”

She had been active her entire life, and now she couldn’t imagine spending the rest of her years withering away. But her neurologist, Michelle Brewer, MD, explained that she didn’t have to.

Betty Uchman LSVT therapyBetty Uchman LSVT therapyDr. Brewer recommended LSVT BIG and LOUD, a form of therapy specifically developed for Parkinson’s patients. It’s offered at Fort Loudoun Therapy Center in Lenoir City.

“Typically, one of the main characteristics of Parkinson’s is that it makes everything smaller – movements, steps, vocal loudness, pitch range,” explains speech therapist Ann Ross. “Patients end up talking very softly without much inflection or emotion.”

Physical therapist Gail Hammer adds that patients end up with reduced mobility for the same reason. “It takes 80 percent effort to make the same movement pattern that someone who doesn’t have Parkinson’s normally takes for granted.”

The “BIG” portion of the therapy focuses on large amplitude movements so patients can have more normal movement patterns, improving balance, and reducing the risk of falls. The “LOUD” portion of the therapy strengthens the voice and enhances vocal range and inflection, so the patient can communicate more effectively and be heard.

Ross says it’s not uncommon for Parkinson’s patients to become withdrawn when they start to perceive that others can’t hear or understand them. The same thing can happen when a patient realizes he or she can’t keep up with others physically.

A typical course of therapy lasts just four weeks, and it does require a high level of commitment from the patient. Uchman diligently performed her assigned home exercises, and has made a commitment to doing those exercises every day for the rest of her life. She says it’s absolutely worth the effort.

While Uchman will always have Parkinson’s Disease, she’s found a way to manage it, making the most of life. Occasionally a fine motor skills task like trying to put a zipper together on her jacket will still cause some frustration.

“I have no patience with myself,” Uchman says. “Then I think – it’s just a zipper, don’t worry about it.”

During a recent visit with extended family out of state, a cousin raved about Uchman’s new and more vibrant appearance. Uchman wanted to know how she had looked the last time they’d been together a year earlier. Her cousin replied, “Lost.”

“I asked her, ‘How do I look now?’ and she said, “You’re back,” Uchman says with a smile.

Uchman gives her therapists credit for bringing her back, saying, “They’re my angels.” But there’s no denying that the will to live and live well powers the human spirit.

With a big smile, a big voice, and broad gestures, Uchman will continue teaching yoga classes every week. Most people would never guess she has Parkinson’s Disease, and that’s the point.

“I tell my students that each day…every breath…is a gift, and that’s why it’s called “the present,” Uchman says.

To learn more about therapy for Parkinson’s Disease, visit ftloudoun.com/physicaltherapy, or call (865) 271-6080.

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