Dear Don: a physiotherapist’s letter to a person with Parkinson’s

Mary Burton is a rehabilitation physiotherapist who specialises in treating people with neurological diseases. Here, she pens a thank you letter to Don, who has Parkinson’s.

I was introduced to you a couple of years ago. You had Parkinson’s and had been in hospital with an unrelated medical issue. During your stay you were regularly told to ‘stay in bed in case of falls’. You were independent and feisty, but also frustrated with being immobile and unable to do things like put your socks on, let alone get out and about. 

During our first sessions I taught you a movement pattern so that you could lift yourself out of a chair on your own. We were all so impressed that I began working with you and your wife on other ways you could use small exercises to improve everyday life. 

We all hear that ‘exercise is good for you’, but it also has to be specific to you and how your symptoms affect you. Exercise to build muscles has to be resistance based, exercise to improve fitness needs to push you little, and so on. In this respect, ‘plodding along’ won’t do much for you. Challenging, intensive exercise (when it is possible), means the rewards are greater. 

The other thing about physical activity and exercise is that it is hard. People invest money all the time on things like gyms. Gyms thrive on people buying memberships. But to actually invest some of your time everyday in doing a bit - that’s what makes a difference. 

For you, this meant me turning up at our weekly appointments to challenge you with ever more complex tasks. It was hard and horrible at times but we persevered. I remember the first week we practiced getting down to the floor and dealing with the fear of not getting back up again. We did that each week - down to the floor and back up again, over and over, until you could do it entirely independently. I suggested cognitive challenges while doing balance work, frustrating dexterity challenges while doing big hand movements - things that weren't easy to do. You grumbled but you also smiled.

Everytime I asked you to try something you did it - you weren't scared of failing.

Over time the stairlift became redundant and you tended to push the wheelchair along rather than be pushed. The two of you got a lovely dog and would go for walks together along the river. But, this isn’t a ‘and then they lived happily ever after’ story. This is real life. Some of the things we worked on you could do, but there were plenty of things you still weren’t able to achieve. We kept practicing those and each time you could do something, the task was pushed harder, so you were constantly practicing something just out of reach. 

As adults we almost never choose to do things we cannot do. We tend to stay in our comfort zones. The well known phrase ‘there’s no such thing as can’t’ is rubbish, because for some people it isn’t an option. But everytime I asked you to try something you did it - you weren't scared of failing and the reward came in the trying, not necessarily the succeeding. 

To me, strength of character is finding that one thing you cannot do and trying your best to get as close as you possibly can. I believe this is what can change lives.

Don, you and your wife have shown me the power of continued perseverance even in the face of repeated failure. That’s why I’ve decided to take part in a rowing marathon. I’m what some may describe as an overweight asthmatic old girl - I can’t row and I have never travelled 50km powered purely by my own physical strength. I am trying to do something I cannot do, and in the process, get a taste of my own medicine. And I am so grateful that meeting you and your wife in my professional life has led to me pushing myself in my personal life.

Thank you both - you truly are extraordinary people.

Find out more about physiotherapy and Parkinson's