Healthy Living

Parkinson’s: How Three Famous Individuals Fought the Disease

Parkinson’s: How Three Famous Individuals Fought the Disease

Attribution from left to right: By World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland (World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2006); By Thomas Atilla Lewis; By Eric Draper - whitehouse.gov, Public Domain

Key Takeaways

  • It is crucial to not think of being diagnosed with an incurable condition as a death sentence.
  • Any patient can make his or her life more meaningful.
  • Famous people fight Parkinson's, too.

Parkinson's is a degenerative central nervous system disorder that affects an estimated 1 million people in the U. S. alone according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Despite recent efforts, the disease remains to be a mystery to the medical world with no known cure and no known accurate causes. Because of that, most patients suffering from Parkinson's lose hope and in worst cases, suffer depression. However, there are a few well-known people with Parkinson's who refuse to back down and even use their condition to make their lives all the more fulfilling. Check out their inspiring stories while battling with this disease:

1. Muhammad Ali

His greatest fight

One of the greatest names in the sporting world, Muhammad Ali, was a legend both inside and outside of the boxing ring. He was a staunch supporter against racism and an advocate of several charitable works. While he has fought quite some bouts in his career, a greater foe awaits him outside the court to begin the biggest match of his lifetime. Three years after retiring from boxing in 1981, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984.

A display of strength

One of the most notable public displays of how Parkinson's has taken a toll on Muhammad Ali was during the 1996 Olympics Torch Lighting in Atlanta. Ali's fans noted the legend's shaky hands and sluggish movements. It hurt everyone to witness a once champion man fade away due to a disease, but little did they know that the condition has made Muhammad Ali stronger on the inside. Despite his slurred speech, whispery voice, and drowsy movements, Muhammad Ali did not shy away from the spotlight. He still appeared in public, even more often, continuing to do charitable work and promoting against racism. Being a Muslim, he also devoted himself to religious activities.

Ali once said "Parkinson's is my toughest fight. No, it doesn't hurt. It's hard to explain. I'm being tested to see if I'll keep praying and to see if I'll keep my faith."

The end of the battle

Muhammad Ali fought Parkinson's disease for 30 more years since his diagnosis until it came to an end last June 3, 2016, when he succumbed to complications from a chest infection. According to Dr. Michael S. Okun, national medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation,

"While Muhammad Ali is best known as one of the greatest athletes of our time, we will always remember him as one of the strongest fighters in the Parkinson's community."

Indeed, the man left a great impact on Parkinson's by raising public awareness of such disease through inspirational talks and fundraising activities, making him one of the most well-known people with Parkinson’s disease.

2. Michael J. Fox

How it all began

Contrary to what most of the people believe, Parkinson’s is not an old person’s disease. There are cases of people diagnosed with the disease at a young age and Michael J. Fox, a Canadian-American actor, is a prime example of this, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease back in 1991 when he was only 29 years old. Fox only disclosed this condition seven years later in 1998, which subsequently led to his retirement from acting in 2000.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation

After getting out of the limelight, Fox immediately founded The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, a non-governmental organization aimed at discovering a cure for Parkinson’s Disease through funded research activities to develop and improve new and existing therapies for Parkinson’s patients. Aside from that, the foundation also conducts information drives to educate the public about the nature of Parkinson’s disease and other relevant activities. With the success of his foundation, Fox went out of retirement and proceeded to win prestigious awards such as the 2010 National Association of Broadcasters Distinguished Service Award and the 2011 Hoerzu Magazine Golden Camera Award. He also partnered with other well-known people with Parkinson’ssuch as Muhammad Ali during fundraising activities.

Expanding one’s horizons

I was only supposed to work for another 10 years. I was supposed to be pretty much disabled by now. I’m far from it. This is as bad as I get, and I can still go to the store and go marketing,” Fox said.

True enough, having Parkinson’s disease was not an excuse for Fox to impose limitations on himself. He explored other fields of interest such as writing, using his present health condition to inspire his works. His first book, “Lucky Man”, tells the story of Fox’s life in denial during his first seven years with the disease up until the founding of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. One of his books, “Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist”, published in 2009 became a New York Times bestseller. It even inspired a TV series that later received an Emmy nomination for an Outstanding Nonfiction Special. Fox’s special talents while battling Parkinson’s came from his optimistic and humorous outlook on life despite his condition.

3. Pope Saint John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla)

A disease that knows no bounds

Parkinson’s disease can happen to anyone whether you are rich, poor, male, female, notorious or famous — just like the case of Pope John Paul II, the figurehead of one of the major religions of the world. The pope entered papacy when he was 54 years old in 1978, as a man who was in good shape for his age, being a sports enthusiast who enjoyed hiking, swimming, and jogging around the Vatican grounds much to the horror of the officials. The beloved pope now officially a saint was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 when he was 75 years old, but like otherwell-known people with Parkinson’s, the officials of the Vatican kept this condition secret for 12 long years, for fear of damaging the religious leader’s image.

Always on his feet

Despite the diagnosis, Pope John Paul II continued to travel around the world like he used to, spreading messages of love and faith to Catholics from different countries. He even survived several murder attempts in his life from various terrorist groups during his visits. His condition became apparent during his trip to Slovakia in 2003, when he became breathless and unable to finish his speech before a huge crowd. Because of so many rumors and speculations about the pope’s declining condition, the Vatican had no other choice but to reveal the fact that the pope was struggling with Parkinson’s disease. Even though he looked nothing like his active 54-year-old self when he assumed the papal position, Pope John Paul II remained mentally alert.

His final year

In early 2005, Pope John Paul II was hospitalized due to difficulty in breathing brought about by influenza. He was released shortly afterward, but since then he had been going in and out of medical care. On March 31, 2005, the pope developed septic shock after a urinary tract infection, resulting in high fever and low blood pressure. Instead of being hospitalized, he was only monitored closely by medical professionals in his residence. Those near him believe that he was already nearing death. Indeed, a few days later, the pope entered a comatose state before he breathed his last breath. Aside from septic shock, the religious leader also experienced multiple organ failures that accounted for his death on April 2, 2005, approximately just 46 days before his 85th birthday.

Final thoughts

Do not think of being diagnosed with an incurable condition as a death sentence. Do not let your health stop you from doing what you always want to do. Like these three well-known people with Parkinson’s, any patient with the disease can still find ways to make their lives more meaningful— you just need to find a purpose and the guts to work towards it.