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Parkinson's Painful Progress

April 20, 2006
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They began so quietly, so subtly, that the symptoms might have gone unnoticed.

Busy Philadelphia attorney Steven Waxman was 54 years old and a basically healthy guy when he began feeling more tired than usual in the afternoon, and noticed that one leg would drag a little.

"Then I started to carry my right arm in an unusual way. It was noticeable enough that two friends, both health-care professionals, suggested I see a doctor."

Waxman did, and his internist suggested that he see a neurologist, "just to rule out Parkinson's disease." Except that the neurologist did not offer that welcome news.

After a clinical examination in 2001, Waxman heard a diagnosis that he'd never expected - this husband and father of three had Parkinson's disease.

"My first reaction was a sense of bewilderment about what was going on - and what was going to happen," he said. "I knew a little about Parkinson's, but not nearly enough. That's when I started reading and learning."

That learning curve was steep - and vital. Waxman would begin treatment with medication for his slowly worsening symptoms, and improvement was almost immediate: "I walked better and my arm was not as awkward as it had been."

But by 2004, this active trial lawyer, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, found himself facing a deeply troubling decision. "I was experiencing a reversal in my sleep patterns, not sleeping all night and falling asleep from exhaustion during the day," he revealed. "Obviously, my inability to stay awake was having a profound effect on my relationship with clients and the judicial system. Colleagues, when asked, acknowledged that I was not the same lawyer I had been."

During a six-month transition period when he closed some files and transferred others, Waxman was also beginning to say goodbye to the profession he loves. And that might have been that.

Except that Waxman had become active in the Parkinson Council, the Bala Cynwyd-based Delaware Valley Chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation, which he learned about through an old friend who had also been diagnosed with the disease.

The organization's executive director was leaving, so Waxman decided to apply for the job. And he was, of course, uniquely qualified as someone living with Parkinson's himself. "Where else could I find such a fulfilling position where Parkinson's disease is an asset, not a liability?" he reasoned.

Always active in the community, this is a man who thrives on involvement. He has served as an officer and a board member of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and as president of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. He also serves as board chairman for the Foundation of Jewish Day Schools in Greater Philadelphia, as well as vice chairman of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia.

As such, Waxman is no stranger to communal challenges. And heightening awareness of Parkinson's disease is now on the front burner for him.

"Parkinson's is a life sentence - there is no known cause and no known cure. But I hope to continue to live a fulfilling life, even though I don't have the same stamina I used to. But that certainly doesn't mean that I don't feel a purpose and commitment in my life."

There is much work to be done, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month. The Parkinson Council over which Waxman presides promotes the search for the causes and cure of the disease, and focuses on educating patients, their caregivers, health-care professionals and the public.

It's a big order. But Waxman has a big vision: "I now have a unique opportunity to reach out to others about this disease. More money needs to be raised, more awareness needs to come, but I'm optimistic that we're on our way."

About the Disease

Parkinson's is a chronic neurological condition named after a London physician who first described it in 1817. The disease affects a small area of cells in the mid-brain. The gradual degeneration of these cells causes a reduction in the vital chemical, dopamine.

Some 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson's disease, with 160,000 regionally.

For more information about the Parkinson Foundation, call 610-668-4292 or visit: www.theparkinsoncouncil.org.

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