Fighting Back: Bloomington Resident Takes on Parkinson’s Diagnosis

Tom Fuller strolls into the office building with a black duffle bag in hand and determination on his face. He is known to many in the Bloomington community for his stellar home construction business, but on this day his bag of tools contains nothing close to a hammer, saw or drill. Fuller is not here to build a house or oversee a remodel; he’s hoping to rebuild his body. He pulls out a wrap for his hands and a pair of boxing gloves. He’s ready to fight.

Little more than a year ago, Fuller noticed his right hand was twitching, his anxiety level had escalated, his balance was off and his handwriting was extra small. Confused by the changes in his body, Fuller made an appointment with his primary physician who referred him to Neurologist David Harvey, MD with IU Health Southern Indiana Physicians. The May 2015 diagnosis came with its own punch: Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ve rattled my brain just thinking ‘how could I have gotten this?’” he questions, his right hand noticeably shaking. The tremor is the only visible symptom of the man who is fit, lean and whose youthful look belies his 59 years of age. He says there is no history of Parkinson’s in his family, he recalls no head injuries and to his knowledge he hasn’t been exposed to any chemicals – all things prominently on the list of potential causes. He frequently wonders if stress is the cause, since his hand tends to shake more during stressful times.

The fact remains, to date there is no known cause for the disease—only studies and hypotheses. And there is no cure. Yet medications and a nationally acclaimed boxing program started in Indiana, have shown great promise for coping with and improving the debilitating symptoms. Fuller embraces the “Rock Steady Boxing” program with grit.

“I wasn’t sure it would be the right fit for me, but I thought I would give it a try,” Fuller says of the program. Eleven months later, he ventures to the west-side Bloomington IU Health location, for an hour-and-a-half session, three days a week. Wiping his brow, he says, “I come in here and give it 110 percent. By doing so, I think it motivates others here to give it their best.”

On this hot summer day in August, nine people from different walks of life, each with varying degrees of Parkinson’s, show up for the advanced class. While no two individuals are alike, they are a part of a community—each able to empathize with the other.

The routines at the boxing class—also known as RSB—require strength and endurance. Stations are set up around the room, each focusing on a different aspect  of balance and body control. Participants move through the course, pushing and pulling a200-pound sled, beating on tires with bats, shaking heavy industrial ropes, walking a balance beam, and among other things, there’s the ever popular opportunity to box with punching bags.

Fuller is a standout in all of the RSB activities, but he knows the reality. “It’s a progressive disease, but I want to fight it off as long as I can and keep a normal life.” For him, that means maintaining the business that’s earned him local people’s choice awards. He also likes tinkering with his classic muscle car, a 1972 Mustang. And he cares about the positive influences in his life: his wife, Teresa; daughter and son-in-law, Tara and Chip Johnson.

This 26-year resident of Bloomington has no intention of quitting on life. He believes RSB will keep him in the game. “If I don’t come and I don’t ride my stationary bike every other day, I can tell my balance is off. I’m doing the best I can to keep this at bay and I really believe in this class.”

Rock Steady Boxing improves independence of Parkinson’s patients

  1. Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) is a nationally-acclaimed program founded in 2006 by former Marion County (Indiana) prosecutor Scott Newman, who was diagnosed at age 40 with Parkinson’s disease.
  2. Four RSB classes are offered weekly to accommodate varying degrees of Parkinson’s. Ask your primary care provider about joining a class.
  3. The classes also offer support, where participants are given the opportunity to talk to others experiencing symptoms from the disease.

Doctor prescribes repetitive exercise

All kinds of exercise, including certain types of repetitive motions, can delay progression or even reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, says IU Health Southern Indiana Physicians provider David Harvey, MD, a neurologist who diagnoses and treats patients with the degenerative disease of the central nervous system.

“Rock Steady Boxing is a great example of that kind of beneficial exercise,” Dr. Harvey says. Tom Fuller and several of Dr. Harvey’s other patients regularly attend Rock Steady Boxing classes. “Many of my patients who go have improved. It’s a great supplement to medications prescribed by neurologists.” He emphasizes that medications are an important part of an overall treatment plan.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s

Dr. Harvey describes some common signs that can signal the need for evaluation by a neurologist.

  • Tremors in the arms, which usually starts in only one arm.
  • Tremors are worse when patient is at rest.
  • “Bradykinesia” which is an abnormal slowness of body movement.
  • Parkinsonian gait, including stooped posture, shuffling and poor balance.

Featured IU Health Southern Indiana Physicians provider seeing patients for Parkinson’s conditions and other neurological disorders:

David Harvey, MD
812.353.DOCS (3627)