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Commentary: To those who live with Parkinson’s, you’re not alone

Guest contributor | August 15, 2014

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Bennett Kayser LAUSD

Bennett Kayser, representing district 5 on the LAUSD board of education

By Bennett Kayser

As we learned yesterday that Robin Williams had been in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, I felt the need to step forward and share my story, and perhaps let others know they are not alone, that there is hope and that life with the disease can be joy-filled.

I was recently honored to be the guest speaker at a Parkinson’s conference in Pasadena and delivered the address, which follows below.

The sad loss of Mr. William has caused me to recommit my energies, as a member of the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to serving children and adults, burdened with seen and unseen physical and mental challenges. I am here to help, as are others, never give up.

My speech was called, “What Parkinson’s Has Done For Me”

     About seven years ago, my right hand would occasionally tremble, and then it would stop. I attributed the shaking to cold weather and air conditioning. When the frequency of my hand’s shivers increased, I decided it was time to see a doctor. He told me that it was likely Parkinson’s Disease and referred me to a neurologist who confirmed the diagnosis.

     “Why me?!” was my first reaction. I didn’t know much about Parkinson’s. My immediate thoughts were that all I could look forward to was an uneventful life, incarcerated in a wheelchair. I decided to learn more.

     I ran across two very important references: First, was a inspirational quotation in a brochure from a man with Parkinson’s, who said “I may have Parkinson’s, but I won’t let it have me.”

     The second was a TED Talk by a doctor, Terry Wahls, who was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. She told a story of finding a nutritional regimen that ultimately freed her from her wheelchair and sent her on to the active life she had enjoyed prior to her diagnosis.

     I had been a 7th grade Science and Health teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District for about 14 years. I had 184 twelve-year-olds come through my classroom each day. I shared the news of my diagnosis with my students and together we learned more about the disease. Coincidently, one of my student’s grandfathers was diagnosed with Parkinson’s that same week. Although the news was sad and disappointing, the family appreciated knowing they were not alone and that resources are available.

     For a number of reasons, Parkinson’s among them, I decided to run for a seat on the LAUSD School Board. I didn’t attempt to hide my condition. In fact, if I started to tremble, I would often announce why, and sometimes make light of it, saying, “As a politician, it helps me shake hands with a lot of people quickly.”

     I won the election and now represent LAUSD’s Board District 5, which extends from Griffith Park to South Gate. I have authored resolutions supporting Parkinson’s Month, sponsored health fairs, a 5K/10K run and bike-a-thon, and a number of activities involving good health and nutrition.

     Parkinson’s has also deepened my resolve to bring back Health classes — actual classes with live teachers, rather than computer screens — for elementary, middle, and high school levels. 

     Yes, I may walk and talk a little slower, but I have to agree with the man quoted in the information piece:

     “I may have Parkinson’s, but I’m not going to let it have me.”

Bennett Kayser represents District 5 on the Los Angeles Unified School District board of education

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