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Parkinson’s: ‘Gift That Keeps On Taking’

Renee LeVerrier PaintingPhoto: Renee LeVerrier’s painting of a red tulip, the universal Parkinson’s symbol of hope for a cure, is on display at the Newburyport Art Association through this weekend.

By Carol Feingold
For the Newburyport Current
Posted: 04/27/2011 07:26 PM PDT

Newburyport — “There’s the taking side and there’s the gift side,” says Renee LeVerrier of Parkinson’s disease. The progressive condition has limited her in many ways but also has opened new doors, such as art. Her painting “Hope” is on display in the Spring Member Juried Show at the Newburyport Art Association through April, which coincidentally is designated as Parkinson’s Awareness Month by the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

“Parkinson’s is the gift that keeps on taking, one little bit at a time,” said actor Michael J. Fox, who also suffers from the disease.

“Every day is different,” said LeVerrier, who lives in Newburyport. “You can have a day when you feel totally normal and you can have a day when you’re totally symptomatic. There are as many versions of Parkinson’s as there are people.”

At 12, LeVerrier suffered a stroke caused by a birth defect in a blood vessel. Her left side was affected by it. When she was 40, LeVerrier started to have issues with stiff coordination on her right side.

Two years and seven neurologists later, she received the Parkinson’s diagnosis.

“I think people still think Parkinson’s is an old person’s disease, but according to the Cleveland Clinic, there are 10,000 newly diagnosed cases per year in people under 50 years old, and half of those are under 40,” said LeVerrier, who now is 49.

“It’s not an old person’s disease. I give presentations all over ‑ Scotland, Ireland, Iowa ‑ and there are a lot of young people with Parkinson’s disease out there.”

The good side

“I am like the Energizer Bunny – moving, moving, moving, and then stop. My battery runs out. That’s the taking, but there is also the gift side,” she said.

On the gift side is her newfound interest in art.

“I never took art classes,” LeVerrier said. “I went to Catholic schools that didn’t have art classes. I never even took art history.”

Her first experience with art was two years ago, when her son Pedro was in first grade.

“It was yet another snowstorm, and I thought, ‘What are we going to do? We’re going to paint,’” she said, “and I decided to paint, too. Oh my God, I had so much fun mixing colors.

“‘What have I missed?’ I thought. ‘When I sing, no one knows what song I am singing, but this looks like a pear. This is so much fun.’”

She bought herself a set of acrylic paints and joined the Newburyport Art Association, where she began life drawing classes with Alan Bull.

“I have a chronic disease. How much worse can it get?” LeVerrier said. “I am no longer intimidated. I’ve had people think I’m drunk in public because of the way I walk. Who cares? If someone doesn’t like my art, who cares?

“It’s very freeing. When I’m painting or in a life class, I’m somewhere else. I’m immersed in whatever I’m working on.”

Because LeVerrier’s hand tremors are “tremors at rest,” when she actually moves her hand, reaching out to grasp a brush or a piece of charcoal, the tremors stop.

“Chronic illness involves so much loss,” LeVerrier said, “and art is something I can get better at. There’s some control over getting better. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m having a lot of fun.”

One day LeVerrier had brought home a bunch of red tulips from a meeting of the American Parkinson Disease Association, where she had presented a yoga teacher training session.

“The red tulip is the universal Parkinson’s symbol of hope for a cure,” she said.

She got out her paints and created the painting that is now on display at the Newburyport Art Association. “The way the light was working, it said ‘hope’ to me.

“This is the first time I ever mustered up the courage to submit something, but the local members show was the month of April, which is also Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month. It was just serendipitous.

“Art and creative writing both allow me to be in a world outside Parkinson’s, so I don’t always have to be defined by it. There are studies that show exercise, creativity and social connectiveness keep the brain cells alive and help regenerate the brain cells.”

According to Julie Carter, of the Oregon Health and Science University Parkinson Center of Oregon, there is scientific evidence that people with Parkinson’s disease may be able to alter the progression of their disease and improve brain function with “exercise, connectedness and creativity.”

On the creativity side, LeVerrier has art as well as writing. She is a freelance writer and the author of two published books “Yoga for Movement Disorders: Rebuilding Strength, Balance and Flexibility for Parkinson’s Disease and Dystonia” and “A, B, C … X, Yoga, Z,” an alphabet book for children.

A dizzying schedule

A registered yoga teacher, LeVerrier conducts classes at the Yoga Center in Newburyport, Council on Aging in Newbury, and Massachusetts General Hospital and Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital. She also is keenly involved in the gathering of information about the disease, delivering presentations on yoga for people with physical limitations at Parkinson’s disease conferences both here and abroad.

In June, she will participate in the Parkinson’s Arts & Movement Weekend sponsored by the Massachusetts Chapter of APDA, as both a yoga instructor and co-director. Held at the Adelynrood Conference Center in Byfield, the weekend will include workshops in art, dance, photography, Tai Chi and yoga.

Her disease has not made a couch potato of LeVerrier. When she isn’t practicing or teaching yoga, she boxes, runs weekly and is an avid bicyclist.

“I started bicycling in my late 20s,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t do the distance and maintain balance as well now, so I ride tandem with my husband and son. Studies have been done that tandem riding is actually beneficial. [Husband] Andy pedals faster than I would on my own, so I have to pedal faster, and that re-patterns the brain. I just feel good after a bike ride, less symptomatic.”

Last summer, LeVerrier, her husband and son bicycled in the Swiss Alps, and every September, they participate in the New England Parkinson’s Ride, a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation to study the cause and cure for Parkinson’s disease.

“Parkinson’s obviously is part of my life,” LeVerrier said, “but it’s nice to have art, something that has nothing to do with it. Art takes me out of myself, and it’s relaxing. It’s like a window has opened.”

Copyright 2011 The Newburyport Current. Some rights reserved

Source Date: Apr 27 2011
Source Publication: Newburyport Current
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