It has been nearly 15 years since Dwight Harder was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
With April designated as National Parkinson’s Awareness Month, Dwight hopes his story will be inspirational and, most importantly, educational for people who face chronic illnesses and diseases.
“With Parkinson’s disease, you have the tendency to want to be an introvert,” says 72-year-old Dwight. “When you can’t walk straight, when your voice is soft, when you drool ...”
In addition to Parkinson’s disease, Dwight has battled myasthenia gravis — a chronic neuromuscular disease, considered as an autoimmune disorder — for more than 30 years.
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“Myasthenia gravis — if not taken care of — will kill me,” Dwight says.
Dwight says he ingests “about 30 pills” throughout the day because without taking medication, his eyelids start to droop. He takes three medications on a daily basis for Parkinson’s disease, which started as a twitch in his left pinkie finger.
At the time, he was working for Carris Reels in Madera. The last five years of employment were tough as his symptoms started to take a physical toll on him, Dwight says.
“It got harder and harder to function,” he says.
The hardest part for Dwight, he says, is rhythmic shaking (tremor) when he gets nervous. He also has problems with his digestion. He retired from the manufacturing company about four years ago.
But Dwight isn’t alone to fight the day-to-day battles of Parkinson’s disease and myasthenia gravis. His wife, Julie, has been his lifeline for two decades.
The 67-year-old breast cancer survivor was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — nearly eight years after her husband.
“Parkinson’s disease can affect people in different ways,” she says. Mainly, her posture and balance are affected. Like Dwight, she also suffers from nightmares.
According to the American Parkinson Disease Association, 1 million men and women are living with Parkinson’s disease in the United States.
The list of symptoms extend to include stiffness or rigidity of the muscles, slowness of movement (bradykinesia), constipation, anxiety, depression and fatigue.
Despite their ailments, the Harders are committed to staying educated and informed about Parkinson’s disease by attending the Greater Fresno Parkinson’s Support Group at the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center.
“Don’t be afraid to educate yourself,” Julie says. “Support groups are wonderful.”
“It’s not a death sentence,” Dwight adds. “You aren’t going to die tomorrow because you have Parkinson’s disease.”
The couple hopes to start a support group at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens — their home of two years — in the future. In addition to continuous healthcare, they were drawn to the fact that TSJG offers independent-living apartments, various options for dining and pet-friendly accommodations for their Yorkshire Terrier, Bella.
As for their 20-year marriage, their ailments have created an unbreakable bond between the couple. They have four children, nine grandchildren (with the 10th grandchild on the way) and one great-grandchild.
The couple recommends three pieces of advice if you’re diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease:
1. Find a support group.
2. Don’t lose faith.
3. Count your blessings.
“Be thankful for what you have — not what you don’t have.”
THE Greater Fresno Parkinson’s Support Group
10 a.m., second Saturday of the month at Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center, 5340 N. Fresno St., Fresno
Details: (559) 824-5177, www.dhhsc.org