When the tremours began and her balance deteriorated, Linda Dawson thought she was just getting old. She was retired, life was slower, and the changes were gradual.
"My balance got really bad with no explanation," says the 67-yearold Burnaby resident over coffee at a Kensington Starbucks. "If I was holding a glass of water, my hands would shake, and water would spill over."
Linda's friends insisted she get checked out, but her family doctor thought it was nothing. Linda pushed for a referral to a neurologist, who made her do curious tasks, like drawing spirals and the letter L in cursive. She was put on a medication and told: if it works, and you start to feel normal again, then you have Parkinson's disease.
Sure enough, the symptoms started to fade, leaving Linda terrified.
"You feel very alone because none of your friends have this, none of your family has it," she says, fingering a thin silver cross around her neck with a trembling hand.
The official diagnosis came last June. Parkinson's is a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by a decrease of dopamine in the brain.
According to the Parkinson's Society of B.C., the disease affects 100,000 Canadians, roughly one in 300. The average age for onset is 60, and it's second only to Alzheimer's in commonality for chronic neurodegenerative diseases. People can seek treatment, but there's no known cure, and it gets worse. Symptoms can include depression; tremours; difficulty walking, talking and swallowing; and trouble with posture.
In Linda's case, her hands shake, she has joint pain, and she struggles to find the right word. Several times during our interview, she pauses with a blank stare mid-sentence before carrying on. Linda folk-dances with a local Burnaby group, but she had forgotten the names of the dances and the steps.
"All I could remember was the music," she says.
Exercise is vital for people with Parkinson's because it increases dopamine in the brain. Linda still goes out to the dances - sometimes watching, sometimes joining in - and she's starting to remember.
But at times, it's difficult for her to complete a simple physical task, like getting into the car.
"You see, you're kind of shocked, and I think your brain is shocked," she says.
Readers may recognize Linda's name, as she used to send the Burnaby NOW letters in support of Mikhail Lennikov, the former KGB agent who took up asylum at Vancouver's First Lutheran, where she attends church. She can't write letters anymore.
"I can hardly put a paragraph together because my handwriting is so bad," she says. She even had a hard time getting into her safety deposit box at the bank because her signature had deteriorated so much.
A few months after the diagnosis, Linda got involved in a local support group for people with Parkinson's at Confederation Seniors Centre in North Burnaby.
"Apparently with everybody, it's pretty much the same. We are all on the same medication, pretty well," she says.
She's been active with the group ever since and has decided to organize Burnaby's first walk to support Parkinson's research.
The event is on Monday, Sept. 10 at the track in Confederation Park. Registration is at 1: 30 p.m., and the walk begins at 2 p.m. Anyone can participate, register in advance and download a pledge form at www.parkinson.bc.ca.
The walk's proceeds go to the society, which funds research and helps raise awareness about the disease, while offering support and resources to those who suffer.
Linda expects the Parkinson's to worsen.
"The prognosis is not good. All you can do is hope for the best. That's why, for me, research is really important. These young scientists, I'm hoping they will have the key to the cure," she says.
"Science is all - you can trust in," she says, her voice trailing off. "Science and prayer."
What: Burnaby's first walk to support Parkinson's research
When: Monday, Sept. 10. Registration at 1: 30 p.m., walk at 2 p.m.
Where: Confederation Park, Burnaby
More info: For more information on the Parkinson's Society in B.C. go to www. parkinson.bc.ca