April is designated as Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month—a time set aside each year to educate Veterans and the public about this disease. Parkinson’s is one of the most common neurologic disorders with symptoms and signs that include tremors, stiffness of the body, slowness of movement and difficulty with balance. Nationally VA treats approximately 40,000 Veterans with Parkinson’s.
One Veteran being treated by for this disease at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is Gary Pauley of Savannah, Georgia, who served 20 years in the U.S. Army. Pauley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009 and the effects of the disease left him with hip pain. Initially, he sought relief from anti-inflammatory drugs, rest and physical therapy—but nothing was working.
Then, in December 2015, while in a Savannah area Parkinson’s support group, Pauley heard about a new community program called GEMS—Get Excited and Move—run by former Olympian and Olympic coach Michael Cohen. The program is designed to enhance and improve muscular strength and endurance, coordination, agility, flexibility, speed work, and voice command for those with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders. Pauley started as one of the initial 19 participants in the group the following February.
“At GEMS we were not treated like patients or clients,” said Pauley. “We were treated like athletes. It didn’t feel like a program for people with a debilitating disease like Parkinson’s.”
Pauley started in the program after consulting his health care team and Dr. Robert Friedman, Charleston VAMC pain director.
“Dr. Friedman was very frank with me and told me that [pain relief] wouldn’t happen overnight,” said Pauley. “He was right—it took about five or six months for me to feel the pain relief in my hips, but it was great because I wasn’t using any medications to manage my pain.”
Friedman has been running Charleston VAMC’s pain clinic since 2009. He explained that you only get about 10 to 20 percent of pain relief from opioids for chronic illnesses and that’s why incorporating alternative methods are so important for pain management.
“When you get sedentary and don’t move your body, you can develop pain symptoms,” said Friedman. “When you train your brain to do certain movements, you are training your brain to decrease the pain.”
Friedman confirmed that it takes some time for the brain to change, so it can be a while before a patient sees results.
“With a pill you might see effects in six hours or so, but pain relief from opioids isn’t sustainable,” said Friedman. “In fact after 30 to 60 days you can start to experience adverse effects. Switching away from pain management with opioids brings about the best long-term sustained results. You just have to stick with it.”
Pauley started experiencing pain relief about six months after connecting with GEMS.
“My pain is not completely gone, but it’s much more manageable now,” said Pauley. “My pain level was probably at a six before, and now most days I’d say my pain is at about a one—and that’s with more activity and a better quality of life!”
Pauley believes so firmly in the program that he is now a certified level-one weightlifting coach, either leading or assisting in each of the daily classes. GEMS has now grown to include 284 participants, offering 12 classes per week.
A personal goal of Pauley’s is to increase Veteran participation. There are currently about 10 Veterans in the group, ranging in age from their mid 50s to 90 years old.
“It’s a different connection when I’m training a Veteran,” said Pauley. “Maybe it’s because we have a similar mindset and determination. I can always tell when I have a Veteran in the group because they are open to try new things. People are going to try some things in this class that are new to them and an open mind is important.”
Pauley explains that after a Veteran or community member is seen for the recommended time by a physical therapist, like eight to 10 weeks, they are typically left to their own devices to maintain their movement goals. GEMS is that next step to support those with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders during that maintenance phase of their diagnosis.
“Gary is a walking, talking example that Parkinson’s doesn’t have to be a debilitating disease,” said Friedman. “It’s incredible to also see his desire to help other Veterans through their journey.”
For any Veteran looking to start an exercise routine to help relieve pain, first check with your doctor and make sure your heart is healthy enough for exercise and that fall prevention precautions are taken.
GEMS classes are held in the Anderson-Cohen Weightlifting Center in Savannah, Georgia. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (912) 341-6953 ext. 102.
Jim Boyd is another Veteran diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease who has discovered the benefits of exercise—contributing to an increase in his overall quality of life. View his story here.