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Staying active can help to beat back Parkinson’s disease

COLUMBUS, Miss. >> Lap after lap, Mary Anna Nelson kept on going.

Walking turned into jogging. Her eyes were fixed on the path ahead so that she would not trip and fall. No one could overtake her — that, she made sure of.

On a sunny morning a competitive Nelson managed to finish in first place during an exercise at the Frank P. Phillips YMCA Adaptive Fitness program in Columbus, leaving most of her elderly peers behind by a large margin.

Morning exercises like that have always been part of Nelson’s daily routine — perhaps more so after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2018, a long-term nervous system disorder that affects body movements and progresses over time. The disease, though incurable and irreversible, can be controlled through medications.

Symptoms started to show in July that year while she was driving.

“I put my hands on the steering wheel and saw a slight little tremor in that finger,” Nelson said. “And I thought, ‘Something’s wrong.’”

Nelson would soon be proved right. Parkinson’s, which her oldest brother and her father’s identical twin brother both had, has now found her. She could feel the disease progress, as she noted in a journal she kept to document her symptoms and improvements.

In January 2019 she wrote, “I noticed trouble swallowing. Choke easily. Can trip easily.”

Her voice also grew soft, she said. In a daily schedule she jotted down in the journal, she noted how she would wake up with a dry mouth from sleeping with her mouth open. She tried keeping a mask on to keep it closed, she wrote, but “it gets so hot.”

Nelson had never understood why her oldest brother, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, would naturally fall asleep on the couch. But now, she said, it all makes sense.

“I would get so aggravated (when he fell asleep),” she said. “When I got Parkinson’s, if I sit on the couch, and get still and warm, I fall asleep just exactly like he did.”

To fight back against the disease, Nelson decided to make it her “job” to get better.

She started taking longer walks, ranging from seven to 12 miles a day with different walking partners.

At the beginning of last year, Nelson joined the YMCA, where she took different classes and made friends with conditions just like hers. Her coach, Salem Gibson, showed her “no mercy” during the hourlong workout sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she said.

As she lamented about her ruthless coach, Nelson took a swing at the heavy bag in front of her, during a boxing session for people with Parkinson’s. Then another.

Although she was not on beat with the gym music, Nelson kept her pace and posture steady. The point of the exercise, Gibson said, was to help build her balance and keep her focused.

“Their body will let them do it,” Gibson said. “It’s their mind that doesn’t let them do it.”

Part of what drives Nelson, she said, is to alleviate her family’s burden of caring for her.

“I’m sad that I have it, not so sad for myself, (but) for my family,” Nelson said. “It’s harder on them than it is on me … but I’m thankful that I have something that I can do something about.”

Nelson’s fight against the disease won her a proclamation from the Mississippi Legislature, with several lawmakers presenting a resolution recognizing her devotion on the House floor on a February afternoon.

But Nelson did not stop there. She wanted more people to understand the disease and join her fight.

On Feb. 29, in less than four hours, Nelson finished her first long-distance walking event in Jackson, the Mississippi Blues Marathon, completing a journey of more than 13 miles with Gibson, her son J. Nelson and her walking partner Kay Ellis. The group of four set little goals passing runners ahead of them one by one, she said, which made the trip easier to endure.

During the marathon several runners recognized Nelson from a local TV station interview that aired the day before, which she said helped increase awareness of the disease. On the front of her shirt, it said, “Better, not bitter.”

“The whole reason for doing it was, one, to see if I could do it,” she said, “and second, to let people see that people with Parkinson’s don’t have to just sit down and do nothing. … I would have crawled before I would have quit.”

When people think of Parkinson’s, Nelson said, they talk about it in a helpless tone.

“They think it looks like you are at the end,” she said. “It’s not that fast-moving.”

And through her physical exercises, Nelson said she is seeing improvements.

“I am going to get bad, but hopefully a lot later,” she said.

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