In November 2016, Parkinson’s patient A. Blinn couldn’t stand up straight up and could barely walk. She could not smile. The disease had robbed her of the ability to show almost any facial emotion.
It was a difficult time for the independent Blinn. And she couldn’t help wonder: Am I ever going to get better?
Today, she’s out of that wheelchair and walking tall in the carpeted hallways of her Charlotte, North Carolina senior living center. And yes, she’s flashing smiles. “It’s really nice,” she said, “to feel more human.”
Parkinson's Disease is a movement disorder in which the brain stops producing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. As the level of dopamine decreases, so does a person’s ability to control physical movement. It typically affects people 55 and older. Symptoms include slowness of movement, stiffness, the loss of spontaneous facial expression which leaves the patient with a constant look of seriousness.
Blinn’s recovery illustrates points that Novant Health neurologist Dr. James Battista constantly emphasizes with his patients: "Don’t let Parkinson’s dictate what you are," he tells them. . “Mind over matter is very important when it comes to this. Many of my patients go on to lead normal lives — they go out to dinner, play golf, do things socially and do what they want to do.”
For decades, Blinn worked taking care of others in customer service and human resources jobs. After retiring, she continued to live in the Charlotte condominium she owned. But when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years ago, she had to give up her home and move into a Charlotte retirement community.
Blinn was being cared for by another doctor when she first visited Battista in hopes of regaining some of her movement, which was largely gone.
“Her symptoms were quite severe,” said Battista, who specializes in treating Parkinson’s. She had a stooping posture and could no longer swing her arms when she walked. Her voice was so soft you could barely hear her, another common Parkinson’s symptom.
The first thing Battista did was put her on a second medication to see how she might respond. And when she came back several weeks later there was already a noticeable change.
As with many patients, the first sign of improvement comes with a gradual return of facial expression, Battista said.
“It was the first time I saw her smile,” he recalled. “We were headed in the right direction. I told her, ‘I think in six months you’re going to be walking very differently than you are now.’” He upped the dosage of her medication and it continued to deliver results.
Battista notes that different medications work differently with every patient, and that trial and error are often part of the process as he searches for the right combination of medications. “It’s not like following a cookbook,” he said. It’s very individualized.”
He also said there’s a common misconception that Parkinson’s medications — and there are many — often lose their effectiveness over time. Many drugs remain highly effective over many years, he stressed.
In March 2017, she was able to take steps on her own and she could push herself into a standing position, a dramatic and happy change for Blinn. At that point, Battista had her start working with a physical therapist to build on her momentum.
As she continued to improve, her work ethic and determination proved to be key factors. “The woman is motivated like crazy,” said Brady Parker, a Charlotte physical therapy assistant who worked with her closely. “It’s so important for Parkinson’s patients to exercise every day and that’s what she did.
“Today, she’s standing up straight and maintaining it. She’s taking big steps, her arms are swinging … everybody is so proud of her.”
A second therapist added: “The lady is amazing, she’s most improved.”
Blinn credits Battista for much of her improvement. “You can tell he really listens,” she said.
She also said her network of friends and the help of physical therapists played a big role, too.
“I was blessed to have the support of family and friends,” she said. “I had the right help … but I worked hard for it, too.”
And as she smiles, others around her smile, too.
Click here for downloadable guide to Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.