My World of Parkinsonian Delights

No Doorway Wide Enough

In 1981, I was a young Hospital Corpsman just beginning my second hitch in the Navy.  I was assigned to what was then the U.S. Naval Home in Gulfport, Miss.  It was sort of a retirement home for Navy and Marine veterans who had no other place to live.

As was true for most of my first hitch, as soon as someone in charge learned I could type, I was assigned to office duties.  But every 4th night or so, I had the duty section which meant I was on the job for sick bay. Mostly minor stuff, little injuries like bumping your head on the bedstand, that sort of thing.  If someone was in real trouble, it was the duty corpsman’s job to call the ambulance and keep the patient as stable as possible until the paramedics got there.

It was during this time in Gulfport that I noticed something about older folks.  It seemed that some of them just could not walk through a doorway without sizing it up first.  They’d shuffle to a door, stop, look it over, and then shuffle their way through.

I thought that was a riot.  I shared this observation with some friends of mine and really floored them with my spot-on demonstration of how these older folks looked when they came to a doorway.

Yet, I wondered.  What in the world is there about getting older that makes a person question his or her ability to fit through a door?

Now, 10 years and nearly4 months into my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, I understand fully.  It’s not that you’re wondering if you can fit through the door.  Your brain perceives the doorway as a narrow passage and causes your feet to freeze in place.  It’s the same thing YOU would do if you were walking toward a crack in the wall and had to stop before hitting the wall.  I know the doorway is wide enough.  But my midbrain has trouble conveying this information to my legs and feet.  Eventually, somehow, they get the message and moving through the doorway becomes possible.

I experience something like this every day, especially during physical therapy.  When my mind only has to concentrate on one thing — taking big steps, for instance — I’m able to navigate a narrow hallway with minimal difficulty.  But when I add something to the mix, like turning my head side to side or up and down as I walk and I have to concentrate on taking big steps, swinging my arms and coordinating the movement of my head…

I freeze with practically every step.  It’s like my brain allows me to move, assesses my position, checks my balance, makes sure my head is facing in the proper direction, observes the area surrounding me, then allows me to take that next step after which it assesses my position, checks my balance, makes sure my head is facing in the proper direction,observes the area surrounding me, and allows me to take that next step where it all happens again and again and again.

During these “big walks with head turns,” if it feels like I’m losing my balance… I freeze completely.  One arm in front of me, one arm behind me.  One foot in front of me, the other behind.  My head looking either to the left or the right.  Frozen.  Like a statue.  Then, once I have my balance, I concentrate.  I make the mental decision which of my limbs I’m going to move.   And each step is a challenge and I’m exhausted by the time we’re done with PT.

But that’s not all!  We also do this thing where I stand between padded bars, put my feet together, my arms at my side, and close my eyes.  I can generally maintain that position for 30 sec. or so.  Then I have to put one foot halfway in front of the other and close my eyes.  I can’t go for more than a few seconds without feeling myself tipping one way or the other.  One foot completely in front of the other is difficult, even with my eyes open.  Almost impossible with my eyes closed.

So now, almost 30 years later, I understand why those older folks had to size up the doorway before passing through.  The thinking mind knows what it has to do.  But the things you do automatically are anything BUT automatic to the Parkinson’s patient.  We have to THINK our way through the doorway.  And it’s tiring work, my friend.  Tiring work, indeed.

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