COLUMBUS — The symptoms started to show slowly.
Virgil Chochon noticed it when his right arm began to shake. Neither he nor his wife Elaine gave it much concern. They thought it was just part of growing older.
But shortly after, his right leg started to drag when he walked. It was most noticeable when he was mowing the lawn.
It took a few months for him to decide to get it checked out. The shaking and dragging turned out to be Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative motor disorder.
The cause of the disease isn’t known, but it results when nerve cells in the part of the brain that controls movement die.
Parkinson’s most commonly affects men who are older than 50. Nebraska has more cases of the disease per capita than any other region, according to the American Parkinson Disease Association.
Some studies have suggested that Parkinson’s might be caused by genetics, but environmental factors also are considered. In a state like Nebraska that is heavily agriculture-based, toxins such as insecticides used for farming possibly play a role. That could explain why such a large percentage of cases are in the state.
Another reason is Nebraska was the first state to start a Parkinson’s registry that requires health care professionals to report cases of the disease.
Chochon, 77, didn’t know anything about Parkinson’s when he was diagnosed with it about 10 years ago. But since then, he and Elaine became proactive and facilitated a local support group for patients and care takers of those with the disease.
The group meets the first Tuesday of every month in the conference room at Columbus Community Hospital. The meetings are attended by about 20 individuals who share their experiences living with the disease and find support from others.
The Chochons stepped down as facilitators as Virgil’s condition grew progressively worse.
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“It’s going downhill. About six months ago swallowing became a problem. I have been affected severely. I basically don’t do anything. But there was a time when I couldn’t walk around the house. Therapy has helped,” he said.
There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but therapy and medication have been shown to make a difference. Physical therapy has helped Chochon become more mobile. He said he is now able to walk three to four blocks at a time.
Haley Bidroski, a physical therapist at the hospital, has assisted Parkinson’s patients to work on balance, movement and strengthening of arms and legs, as all those can be affected by the disease.
“It has been shown that exercise is as beneficial as taking medication as long as it is done every day,” Bidroski said. “It can help slow down the progression of the disease.”
While the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are easy to see, like tremors, rigidity, slow movement and postural instability, non-motor symptoms also exist. Those can include sleep disturbance, depression, constipation, drooling, vision problems and fatigue.
Chochon also has worked with Michell Ruskamp, a speech language pathologist at the hospital. Many of those with Parkinson’s have voice disorders, including slurred speech, and also develop problems swallowing.
While Parkinson’s itself isn’t fatal, complications can arise. Ruskamp said a big risk is aspiration pneumonia, which can occur when food or liquid gathers in the lungs.
Chochon has kept positive despite his condition. He frequently cracks jokes, making the best of his situation, even though he admits that he knows his mobility will only get worse.
When asked how he stays upbeat, he responded, “What choice do I have?”
His wife of 53 years was quick to add, “I thought you’d say I keep you positive.”
“I was just getting ready to say something nice,” he quickly shot back with a laugh.