A diagnosis of Parkinson’s — an incurable, degenerative disease of the central nervous system — is nothing insubstantial. Its severity is enough to earn those with it the suffix of “sufferer.”
Just don’t use that to address Madeleine Kenefick, a 33-year Davis resident and retired English instructor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2000. She, and the other Parkinson’s patients in her exercise program, have not resigned themselves to misery.
“People in the last stages of Parkinson’s probably are suffering,” she said. “And if they are, the caregivers certainly are. However, the people able to participate in this group generally don’t consider themselves victims.”
Still, Parkinson’s disease can leave patients with devastating symptoms, including tremor, muscle stiffness and limited movement. That’s not including any symptoms caused as side-effects of medications.
But there’s some evidence that these symptoms can be bettered by riding a stationary tandem bike with a strong partner pedaling at a higher speed, based on a research study at the Cleveland Clinic.
Kenefick took that model and replicated it on a local level with the Parkinson’s Tandem Program, now entering its second year at the Davis Athletic Club, 1809 Picasso Ave.
“It’s an empowering program,” Kenefick said. “You’re doing something that you’re not supposed to be able to do any longer, but there you are — on a bike, holding onto handlebars and pedaling.”
As a bonus, she added, the club provides a lively atmosphere to combat the isolating depression often associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Kenefick insists that after a year in the program, many of the participants have demonstrated a subjective improvement of their Parkinson’s symptoms.
“Everyone has been feeling good about it,” she explained. “The idea is that you’re taking control for yourself of your treatment and not just being medicated. It’s a very positive step for someone with Parkinson’s.”
About 12 pairs of cyclists got involved in 2012, Kenefick said, but the drop-in nature of the program makes it difficult to determine an exact number. She’s anticipates more joining this year, anyone from longtime patients to the newly diagnosed.
Delia Bueno Netto, 78, would fit into the latter group of new recruits. She came to a recent information session for the program after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in June 2012.
Netto gave the stationary bike a trial run, and said afterwards she will continue on in hopes of halting her Parkinson’s symptoms. Memory was her primary concern, although it was difficult to tell as she recounted why being on the tandem felt so natural:
“I’ve been riding bicycles since a young age. I can remember the first day I rode one, and a dramatic situation on a street that was angled like this,” she said, holding her hand up to a 45-degree tilt. “It’s very vivid to me.”
Veteran participants also attended the information session, including 77-year-old Jean Malamud. She appeared to be in good spirits, but was not as cognizant of how the program has benefited her:
“I don’t know exactly,” she said with a hearty laugh. “I do know that it’s a whole lot of fun. … For me, it’s a wonderful way of getting some exercise, especially in the winter.”
Another component that keeps the program’s wheels turning are the captains who help participants mount and ride the tandem bikes. The able-bodied volunteers show up as often as possible to help participants achieve the goal of three hourlong riding sessions per week.
Brian Cartoscelli, who joined as a captain late last month, said the opportunity to help these locals in their battle against Parkinson’s has been gratifying.
“Anytime anyone can help with something like this — it’s good,” said Cartoscelli, who also assists with other local volunteer programs. “If I were in that position, I’d hope for the same thing in return.”
Those interested in participating in any way can sign up for the eight-week exercise program at the front desk of the Davis Athletic Club.
— Reach Brett Johnson at email@example.com or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett