Woman Turns Trek Into Parkinson's Pilgrimage
Two years ago, Yvette Moreau had never heard of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a 900-kilometre route that stretches across Northern Spain. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims followed the road--known as the Way of St. James in English--from France to the holy city of Santiago, where the purported remains of the apostle of the same name were discovered in the 9th century. People still do the walk for religious reasons, but the Camino has also become a tourist draw. The trek appealed to Moreau as a good idea for a holiday, so this past spring the Vancouver resident joined up with a friend--another avid hiker--stuffed her sleeping bag into her backpack, and set off. Moreau also turned her modern-day pilgrimage into a mission. Her walk became her own private fundraiser for research into Parkinson's.
Moreau's 71-year-old husband was diagnosed with the disease six years ago. At the time, he couldn't stop one of his fingers from twitching. Moreau, 65, says the couple is grateful the condition has so far progressed slowly, but that it's still not easy to cope with. Since finishing the hike at the end of May, Moreau has raised more than $7,000 for the Parkinson Society British Columbia.
"Having a cause kept me going when things were tough," Moreau says in a phone interview. "I'd be saying my mantra, praying, crying... I did a lot of praying for a cure."
Parkinson's, which got a profile boost when actor Michael J. Fox revealed his condition in 1998, is a progressive neurological disorder. It occurs when an area of the brain called the substantia nigra starts to lose dopamine-producing cells. Having a reduced amount of dopamine means that some brain signals don't get properly transmitted. As a result, Parkinson's sufferers become unable to control their own muscle movements.
According to the Parkinson Society B.C. (www.parkinson.bc.ca/), the condition affects men and women equally. About 7,000 people in the province have the disease. And although the average age of diagnosis is 55, about 10 percent of sufferers are diagnosed before they turn 40. Fox falls in the latter group; although he waited seven years to make his disorder public, he was 30 when he learned of it himself.
According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (www.michaeljfox.org/), symptoms include tremors; stiffness in the arms, legs, and trunk; trouble balancing, walking, or talking; and general slowness. Often the signs arise gradually but escalate in severity.
Medications can alleviate symptoms. The most common drug, levodopa--which the brain turns into dopamine--helps restore mobility but can cause side effects like confusion or hallucinations. In rare cases for people with extremely debilitating symptoms, doctors perform brain surgery.
A lot of Parkinson's research is focused on embryonic stem cells. The theory has it that these cells--most of which are gathered after in vitro fertilization procedures--could replace the ones lost due to the progression of Parkinson's. Adult stem cells could possibly play the same role. Although some people are ethically opposed to using embryonic cells, as the Michael J. Fox Web site explains, "some scientists believe that adult stem cells may be more difficult to work with than those from embryos."
The cause of Parkinson's isn't known, and there is no cure. The Fox foundation's site states that some people debilitate quickly while others experience only minor symptoms for years.
Moreau says that her husband is staying as active and independent as possible, doing yoga, aerobics, and lots of walking. (He helped her prepare for her hike in the 10 months leading up to her trip.) But she admits it's impossible to forget that Parkinson's is debilitating in the long run.
Describing the Camino de Santiago as a physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional journey, Moreau says she and her friend walked about 20 kilometres every day for six weeks, stopping to sleep in unheated convents or monasteries. The weather was particularly lousy; they encountered an unusually cold, rainy spring, which translated into muddy, slippery sections and wet feet. Despite the often miserable conditions, as well as numerous blisters, Moreau says the daily jaunt became a kind of meditation.
"There was an elation that you got from walking," she explains. Replacing big-city distractions like traffic and noise were fields of red poppies and purple heather and the sound of birds chirping or just silence.
"The Camino is life compressed," she says. "There are trials and tribulations, joy and despair; it's just all happening so fast. It teaches you to be focused in the now....Nothing is permanent. The rain would turn to sunshine and the sunshine would turn to rain; everything changes."
For Moreau, the Camino taught her to always "bring in the positive", no matter how wet, cold, tired, sore, and frustrated she may have been. She says this lesson is one she and her husband have since drawn on frequently.