Photographers' Blog

A round in the ring against Parkinson’s

October 22, 2013

Costa Mesa, California

By Mike Blake

I have been tromping around the planet for some 50 years now. I don’t have much recollection of the first six or seven, but after that I can easily think back to places, people and events that remain inside my head much like the pictures I have shot remain on film and in pixels stored on the random-access memory inside this computer I’m typing on.

GALLERY: FIGHTING AGAINST PARKINSON’S

For each and every one of us, our memories are contained somewhere behind our eyes in a biological wonder of neurons that has yet to be fully understood. If you think about all your life’s memories and how much information that is, and, if you’re as old as me, you have to be impressed with this piece of engineering we all have. Not only is it holding your whole life in storage, it’s also been telling your heart when to beat, your stomach when to toss that bad piece of sushi and your body temperature to remain precisely regulated at exactly 98.7 F since the day you were born. If that’s not impressive enough, it tells your body to do everything you want it to do.

It controls all your motor functions, from me typing these letters on a computer screen, to getting up to go to the bathroom. As soon as you think it, it sends the signals down to your muscles and you get to where you’re going, or your arm brings that cup of coffee up to your mouth. Your brain can do all of these things in the blink of an eye – except when it can’t. And this is where I begin my little story about Parkinson’s disease.

I had never met anyone with Parkinson’s until I arrived at a gym in Costa Mesa, California where I had heard there was a fit and motivated woman named Anne Adams who had started a group of Parkinson’s patients on an exercise program called Rock Steady Boxing. Little did I know that the likes of Ron and Dan and Deloris and Jim and Jennifer and Gerry would soak into my mind such a great bunch of memories about what it means to be human.

Parkinson’s is named after the English doctor James Parkinson who published the disease’s first detailed description in 1817. The death of dopamine-generating cells in the brain affects movement, producing motor symptoms. It first manifests as tremors. Sensory and sleep difficulties are also common.

Most of us find it hard to get up and exercise, so imagine the effort put forth when your brain is fighting you and your willpower is engaged to do double duty. Boxing and exercise at a high level can cause the brain to produce dopamine, which is lost with Parkinson’s disease.

I have been lucky enough in my career to photograph some of the world’s best athletes going all out with effort, but in this boxing ring, throwing punches at 6’ 6” boxing trainer Justice Smith, I saw effort in a whole new light. This was not someone fighting an opponent, or diving to catch a pass, this was a personal, internal battle against a disease. They are in that ring fighting for who they once were, all those memories inside their head of their life before their disease are still intact and accessible. It’s the here and now that is affected and in this gym they have all come together to fight.

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