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Georgia Man Swimming to Celebrate Late Mom: Fitting Tribute Will Raise Money for Research on Parkinson's Disease

By Helena Oliviero

Eric Young has swum in Lake Belle Taine in Nevis, Minn., as long as he can remember.

His mother, Barbara Vandergraft, taught her only child to swim there when he was 5 years old. And the two kicked along together in the clear water, weekend after weekend, summer after summer by the lake house built by Young's great-great-grandfather in 1902.

But Young, now a Georgia resident, has returned to Lake Belle Taine to try something he's never done before: He's swimming from one end of the lake to other - almost 6 miles.

It's a fitting tribute to Vandergraft, who lived with Parkinson's disease for 27 years and died in December. His swim will raise money for the Parkinson's Disease Foundation as part of its "PDF Champions" program, a nationwide grassroots fundraising program in which people raise money doing everything from collecting pennies at elementary schools to staging events such as his gambit of swimming across a lake.

Young, 40, is a manager of VIP charter flights with Delta Airlines. He moved to Palmetto southwest of Atlanta about four years ago after the Northwest Airlinesmerger. He has been training four to five days a week, alternating swims between a lake in Peachtree City and a pool in Atlanta.

He was 13 when Vandergraft explained to her son she had a disease of the nervous system that gets worse over time. At first, he didn't notice his mother was sick at all. About a year later, her left leg started dragging. Over time, the symptoms grew more pronounced to include tremors, muscle stiffness and uncontrolled movements.

"What really sticks with me is my mom could have taken this 'woe is me' attitude, but she didn't. She always looked at the positive. She and I were very close. She also fought this disease stubbornly and with everything she had. She would do anything and everything to prolong her life," said Young.

About 1 million Americans have Parkinson's. It's estimated between 15,000 and 20,000 people in Georgia have it, according to James Beck, Director of Research Programs at the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. The cause is unknown and there is no cure. Some drugs can help manage the symptoms.

Most cases occur in people over the age of 60, but some develop the disease much earlier. Actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed at age 30 after he noticed a twitch in his left pinkie. Young's mother was 41 at the time of her diagnosis.

Parkinson's involves the malfunction and death of nerve cells in the brain called neurons. Some of these dying neurons produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As the disease progresses, it leaves a person unable to control movement. About a third of all patients also develop dementia during the later stages.

Getting an accurate diagnosis of Parkinson's, particularly in its early stages, can be tricky because the symptoms can mimic something else. For example, Beck said shoulder pain or stiffness is often an early sign, but a patient may go to an orthopedist, not a neurologist, to get it checked out. Other times, people may simply brush off stiffness or tremors as part of the aging process and never be properly diagnosed. Medications don't necessarily extend the life of someone with Parkinson's, but experts say they can help manage the symptoms and improve quality of life.

For Young, scheduled to begin his swim at noon today, being in the water is a way to remember his mother and help raise money for a cure. He's raised $6,500 and hopes to raise about $1,000 more through a raffle and last-minute pledges. He estimates it will take three and a half to four hours. A friend is joining him on his swim and other friends and family members will follow his journey in a flotilla of boats.

Vandergraft, who worked as a French college professor, fought using a wheelchair for many years, though that meant multiple visits to a hospital because of falls, bruises and broken bones. When Young's mother could no longer swim in the lake, he would carry her into the water so she could float.

Today, as he dips into the lake with its 68-degree temperature, he carries memories of her.

"The cabin has this great porch; the water goes around us on three sides, from the door to the water's edge," he said.

"We would sit on that porch. We would look out to the water and feel the sun and warm breeze. I played Jimmy Buffet. She preferred classical music. We had many special times together. This swim is a way to celebrate her spirit."

About Parkinson's

Parkinson's disease is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that symptoms continue and worsen over time.

About 1 million Americans live with Parkinson's, which is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year.

The average age of diagnosis is 60. (An estimated 4 percent of people with PD are diagnosed before the age of 50).

Men are one and a half times more likely to have Parkinson's than women.

Source: Parkinson's Disease Foundation

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Source Date: Jul 06 2013
Source Publication: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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