Playing through Parkinson's
Holmen man back on stage after early-onset diagnosis
When Drew Dockry was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in January 2011, one feeling rose above the rest: relief.
The now 52-year-old had watched his health decline significantly in the previous year, making it especially difficult for him to find a job at a time when unemployment in the U.S. peaked at 10 percent during the Great Recession.
"That was the worst year of my life," Drew says about 2010. "I was out of work for a year. I was undiagnosed. I was spiraling. My health was in shambles, and I didn't know the reason. I was feeling awful."
Determined not to give up—on his search for a job or on his health—Drew applied for a position in Laundry Services at Gundersen Health System. And in a turn of the tide, he was hired.
Drew soon realized though that his health issues weren't just symptoms of stress or anxiety related to his former joblessness, something he had once thought. About a month into his tenure at Gundersen, Drew's manager saw him laboring with seemingly easy tasks for someone as physically fit as Drew.
"You need to make a doctor's appointment," he told Drew.
Frustrated by constantly feeling limited by stiffness and slow movements, Drew made the appointment.
Primary Care referred him to Neurology, where Drew was able to see a specialist and receive a diagnosis.
Finally, he thought.
"I wasn't pleased to find out I have Parkinson's disease," Drew says, "but I was so pleased to find out it was something treatable and had a name and was something I could live with. In that moment, I was actually truly pleased."
Rachel Biemiller, MD
Drew's doctor immediately started him on medication to help replace the dopamine that his brain had been slow to process for as many as 15 years. Within a week, he felt 75 percent better, he estimates. Today, Drew works with movement disorders specialist Rachel Biemiller, MD, Neurology, to monitor his doses and disease progression. While there is no cure yet for Parkinson's disease, collaborating with Dr. Biemiller and the rest of the Neurology staff has already been life-changing.
In the past seven years, Drew has transitioned from Laundry Services to Patient Services at Gundersen, which has created space for him to better use his degree in communication and the empathy he feels for patients struggling with their health.
Prioritizing his health also has allowed Drew to continue to be active and start playing guitar again with his band, Flibbertijibbet, a group he has fronted since 1991, except for a handful of years in the mid- 2000s when his undiagnosed Parkinson's made it impossible.
"I quit playing music professionally with my band in 2006," Drew says. "It got tougher and tougher, and I just thought it was because I wasn't playing as much anymore. I didn't know there was so much more to it."
Post-diagnosis, Drew can't help but feel gratitude when he takes the stage—guitar in hand, signature hat on his head and toes dirty from jamming with bare feet.
"Parkinson's is only a yield sign, not a stop sign," Drew says.
As evidence, Flibbertijibbet has a gig every couple of months around the Coulee Region. Recently, at Bodega Brew Pub in downtown La Crosse: "We played from 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and at the end of the night I still had a permanent grin on my face," Drew says. "I was so giddy and happy, I was just bouncing around off the walls. I was full of energy."
Did you know?
While most people in America with Parkinson's disease are older than 60, the American Parkinson Disease Association estimates that between 10 to 20 percent of people diagnosed are younger than 50. Symptoms are similar regardless of age, but because the disease is rarer in younger patients, many may go undiagnosed or be misdiagnosed for extended periods of time. If you are experiencing any of the following, talk to you doctor today:
Rigid muscles – Stiffness when the arm, leg or neck moves back and forth
Resting tremor – Tremor, an involuntary movement from contracting muscles that is most obvious at rest
Bradykinesia – Slowness in starting movement
Postural instability – Poor posture and balance that may cause falls or balance problems