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Edison Parkinson’s Patient Finds Hope in Song and Boxing

Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the COVID-19 pandemic, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.

When Hugh McCourt, 78, agreed to join a choir, he did so reluctantly. His speech language pathologist was starting ParkinSINGS, a program for those with Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson-Plus syndromes. The former Marine has zero musical ability and had a hard time picturing himself singing in a choir. “I don’t even sing in the shower,” he says.

But since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago, Hugh has made it his mission to do whatever it takes to manage his disease. The Edison, New Jersey, resident joined Rock Steady Boxing, a noncontact boxing program to maintain his flexibility and balance, increase his dexterity and reinforce his core strength. If singing in a choir could help him stave off difficulty swallowing and strengthen his softening voice, he’d do it, too. And it has.

Interfering with Life

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease of the brain, says Roger Rossi, D.O., one of Hugh’s doctors and director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Program at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute.

“It’s a disease most commonly affecting the elderly,” says Dr. Rossi, who is also a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “About 1 percent of the population over the age of 60 and at least 5 percent of the population over the age of 85 will develop Parkinson’s disease.”

Overall, the disease affects about 1.2 million individuals in the U.S. The disease is universally progressive. However, it affects each individual in different ways, including disease severity and rate of progression, Dr. Rossi says. Over the years, it can lead to motor and non-motor complications including:

Impairment in walking and balance

Postural dysfunction

Freezing of gait (FOG)

Frequent falling

Diminished vocal quality

Trouble swallowing

Difficulties with activities of daily living

Sudden blood pressure changes when standing up

Constipation

Depression and anxiety

Psychosis

Difficulties maintaining sleep

Cognitive or intellectual decline

While there are a number of medications that effectively mitigate symptoms when started in early stages of the disease, there is no treatment that cures it.

However, in the last decade or so, strong evidence has emerged showing that intense exercise significantly affects some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Various forms of exercise have been shown to improve many Parkinson’s symptoms, increase strength and balance—leading to reduced rates of falls and resultant injuries/fractures—and increase functional independence.

“What’s even more exciting is there is increasing evidence that exercise may not only improve symptoms but delay onset and decrease the progression of the disease,” Dr. Rossi says.

Not Throwing in the Towel

Hugh is one patient in the Parkinson’s program at JFK Johnson who has embraced exercise therapy—physical and vocal. “He has participated in a broad array of the therapies we offer,” Dr. Rossi says. These include physical, occupational and speech therapy. He also takes part in community and fitness activities to help with all aspects of his disease, including gait, balance, dexterity, endurance and fine motor coordination, such as buttoning, so he can dress himself and cook meals.

Hugh is in the moderate stage of his disease, with bilateral involvement, mild/moderate disability and postural involvement, but he remains independent physically, Dr. Rossi says. This stage often is characterized by increased loss of balance, falls, poor postural awareness and slower movements.

While patients in this stage are still fully independent, their progressing symptoms may complicate daily living activities. That’s why Hugh, supported by his wife of 45 years, Fran, dedicates himself to a rigorous exercise regimen.

“He works out for 90 minutes every single day because that’s the key, doctors say, to keeping the neurotransmitters in the brain functioning,” Fran says. “I guess it’s the Marine in him. Hugh is not throwing in the towel.”

Physical and Emotional Support

In August 2019, Hugh’s rigorous exercise program expanded to include singing. “I’ve really grown to love the choir,” he says.

The singing and vocal exercises he does in the choir strengthen his voice, speech and swallowing muscles. Just as important, the choir is another opportunity for Hugh and Fran to make social connections and be supported by people who understand what they are going through.

“It’s just an amazing group of people,” Fran says.

Funded by a Parkinson’s Foundation community grant, the ParkinSINGS choir is made up of about a dozen singers. The choir has performed twice with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, including a virtual holiday concert during the pandemic, and created a special recording from their homes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to support hospital staff working on the front lines of COVID-19.

The community Hugh and Fran have become a part of at JFK Johnson is as important to their emotional well-being as all the exercising is to Hugh’s physical health, they say. “I think it’s helped me in all my areas, and it’s not just the exercise. It’s the exercise plus the camaraderie, the reinforcement, the fact that you’re doing something,” Hugh says. “God helps those who help themselves, and I need all the help I can get.”

Watch Hugh's Story:

Next Steps & Resources:

Learn more about the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Program at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute

Meet our source: Roger Rossi, D.O. To make an appointment with Dr. Rossi or another doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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