The Liz Jackson Tragedy

Australia’s highest honour for Journalism is the Walkley Award. In nearly two decades of investigative journalism for ABC’s Four Corners, talented barrister turned journalist Liz Jackson won it five times.

But her last and greatest story is her own, making public her fight against Parkinson’s disease, panic attacks and depression. Fittingly, it was presented as the final episode of Four Corners for 2016. She deserves our praise and gratitude for allowing the camera to film her at her lowest. It was painful to watch, and no doubt confronting for her and her filmmaker husband Martin Butler to record.

Her story brought to my mind that of Canadian-American actor Michael J Fox, winner of several Emmy, Golden Globe, and other Awards. Whereas Liz Jackson was 64 when her conditions were diagnosed in 2014, Michael Fox was still only 29 when diagnosed in 1991 with this career ending condition.  For 7 years he tried to conceal his problem by taking large doses of dopamine. But the relief was temporary, necessitating larger doses, and eventually he developed all too obvious, uncontrollable involuntary movements, a side effect of the prolonged use of dopamine (tardative dyskinesia).

Because harrowing stories such as these may engender a defeatist attitude, and depression, I venture to add a few comments for the benefit of the newly diagnosed. My qualifications for doing so are based on my medical background, and experience of being diagnosed with PD (Parkinson’s disease) in 2002.

Tremors occur in many conditions other than Parkinson’s disease with varying prognoses. A collective term for them all is Movement Disorders. Paradoxically not all patients may have tremor, but the main features are tremor, muscle rigidity, and slow movement (bradykinesia).

Symptoms which have troubled me include fragmentation of sleep, disturbance of balance, and restless legs. A symptom I am most grateful not to have, is loss of the ability to smile. I have become clumsy, and cannot perform the fine finger activities I once could. I find it difficult or impossible to keep food on my fork, or a glass steady without spilling it. Writing, even signing my name, is irritatingly slow, and shaky. But I can still type, despite frequent miss-hits and double or triple taps, and have become a rather prolific blogger (read by few).

Precise diagnosis can be difficult. In my case, because I have little muscular rigidity and my symptoms have been remarkably stable over the years, my diagnosis was re-appraised to Essential Tremor, a familial and more benign condition.

Not all movement disorders respond to medication (as Liz Jackson discovered). Because of the potential for side-effects, the aim should perhaps be to use it sparingly for relief. Cure is not a realistic objective.

The point I would like to emphasize to all suffers from movement disorders is to focus on what still works, and to keep as physically and mentally active as one possibly can. Hand movements may be unsteady, but limb movements are usually assured. I like exercise and aerobic balance classes; I garden and walk the dog. Many Parkinson sufferers find bicycling to be therapeutic. I took up playing croquet soon after being diagnosed, for the skills of steadiness and accuracy it promotes, whilst demanding concentration and planning. Indoor bowls is my latest recreation.

Three quotes I like from Michael Fox:

Family is not an important thing, it’s everything.
 
I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.
 
My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.

 

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