November 21, 2019
Laura Hanf shows off the strength of her voice.
“Put away your clothes!” she warns and lets out a loud, “Ahhh!”
Laura doesn’t yell because she’s angry. She’s exercising her vocal chords to treat her Parkinson’s disease and the symptom of weakened speech. She credits her volume and range to her four weeks of intensive speech therapy at Riverview Medical Center’s LSVT BIG and LOUD Program.
“The unique thing about Laura is her absolute drive and enthusiasm for whatever would help her do better,” says Barbara Miller, the senior speech language pathologist who worked with Laura in the summer of 2019.
Recognizing the Signs of Parkinson’s
Long before the LSVT BIG and LOUD program, Laura was working as a library assistant at Neptune Public Library when she began to recognize the signs of Parkinson’s. First it was the tremors, then more symptoms followed. She was also reading “Lucky Man,” by Michael J. Fox—who suffers from Parkinson’s—and noticed the similarities. She saw a neurologist three months later in 2010 and was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s disease (someone with Parkinson’s who is under 50) at the age of 46.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that can cause tremors, slow movement of the body, stiff limbs, balance problems, and swallowing and speech difficulties. Worldwide, 10 million people are living with Parkinson’s, including around 60,000 people in the U.S. There are five stages of Parkinson’s, and the progression of the disease varies by person. While there are treatments, there is no cure.
For five years, Laura experienced moderate symptoms before they became more severe. The tremors got stronger, and her medication caused the side effect of dyskinesia—uncontrolled, involuntary movement of the body. “Performing everyday tasks became nearly impossible,” she says.
In 2016, Laura underwent a procedure called deep brain stimulation, which treats Parkinson’s main motor symptoms. A surgeon implants a battery-operated device called a neurostimulator that sends electricity to the parts of the brain most affected by Parkinson’s. The surgery helped Laura cut her medications in half, but it also weakened her speech, which led her to Barbara and to Riverview.
LSVT BIG and LOUD Program
The purpose of the LSVT BIG and LOUD program is to teach patients to speak loud enough to be understood. Parkinson’s makes changes to the brain that trick patients into thinking they are speaking loudly when they actually aren’t. The program lasts four weeks, and patients go four days a week for one-hour sessions. They also practice voice exercises at home. Barbara uses a decibel meter to measure the volume of her patients’ voices.
During the first session, Barbara helps patients make up a group of 10 phrases they normally use each day, and they are instructed to repeat them six times, twice per day. Barbara says Laura hit the ground running and was determined to succeed.
“She’s like a spark of energy,” Barbara says. “She’s always positive. When she walks in the room, it brightens up.”
Continuing the Fight Against Parkinson’s
A positive attitude and strong support system go a long way in fighting Parkinson’s. The first step for Laura was opening up about her diagnosis.
“After I told everybody, I could just be myself,” she says.
Supporting the Parkinson’s community is important to Laura, and she raises awareness as a volunteer online DJ on Radio Parkies, a web-based radio station powered by people with Parkinson’s. She shares her story about her experience with Parkinson’s, from discussing her symptoms to her breakthroughs with the LSVT BIG and LOUD program. She interviews other people with Parkinson’s who want to have their voice heard. She also has fun, bantering with her husband, Chris, her occasional co-host, and providing commentary on different songs.
“When I put on those headphones, I get excited,” she says. “The music pumps me up, and I can get through the hour with a strong voice.”
She is also in the process of organizing a lunch group for Parkinson’s patients at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. It would be the first of its kind at the hospital. She hopes to schedule the first event in spring 2020.
Laura is grateful for the love and support from her family, including her husband, her sons, Matthew and David, her parents, cousins and friends. She has a large number of friends with Parkinson’s that help each other deal with the many complex symptoms of the disease.
In addition, Laura stays active, exercising regularly and monitoring her diet. She dances and does water aerobics. She also travels, recently to Copenhagen and Iceland, meeting and befriending people with Parkinson’s along the way.
“If you met me, you wouldn’t immediately notice that I have Parkinson’s,” she adds. “I always tell my friends, ‘I’m not going to go down with the sinking ship. Are you?’ And they reply, ‘No, I’ll get on the ship with you.’ We’ll get on the lifeboat, and we’re not going to go down.”
To listen to Radio Parkies or learn more, visit RadioParkies.com.
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