How a herky-jerky, wonky walk led to a Parkinson’s diagnosis

A neurologist gets to the bottom of my husband's mystery symptoms

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by Jill Hammergren |

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A view of a couple hugging one another.

The pneumatic doors whooshed open, revealing an expansive, tiled lobby and a closed door about 15 feet away. I entered the fluorescent-washed space, but Eric’s awkward, lumbering gait halted.

I offered him my hand. “You OK?”

“Yeah.”

He used me as leverage to deliberately rock his left foot forward to cross the transom between the concrete outside and the glossy floor inside. I was bewildered, but we’d been doing this lately.

Once inside, he dropped my hand and resumed an odd pace — stepping forward on his left foot, dragging his right. He repeated this herky-jerky ambulation.

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Recently, Eric’s gait had worsened. While he worked in product fulfillment at Target, the scraping as he walked wore the bottom of his right sneaker to a racing slick, like at a NASCAR event. Racers opt for tires without treads under certain conditions, but no one opts for shoes missing tread patterns or worn threadbare.

I reached the door and held it open. Again, Eric hesitated before transitioning from the smooth tile to the carpeted floor of the neurology clinic.

He hadn’t gone to the doctor for these troubles before this visit. After 18 months of symptoms and my terrifying spiral through Google looking for answers, I insisted on the appointment.

We checked in with the intake assistant, who gave Eric a health survey. We sat down to fill it out.

“Thank you for coming with me,” he said.

A middle- to late-age couple poses for a close-up in front of a large body of water.

Eric and Jill Hammergren pause for a photo at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. (Courtesy of Jill Hammergren)

“Of course. We’re a team,” I said, rubbing his shoulder.

The nurse opened the door to a long hall and called Eric’s name. We followed her to an office. She conducted Eric’s cursory weight, blood pressure, and pulse checks and then left us alone.

A few minutes later, the neurologist entered and introduced himself. I liked how encouraging he was. Eric told him about an ever-so-slight resting tremor in his right thumb. He could control it when he concentrated. We described his wonky walk and changes to his spatial awareness and perceptions. He discussed a constant tingling sensation on the bottom of his foot, stiffness in his thighs, and rigidity in his arms and joints.

“I feel like I have an anvil pressing down on my shoulders, like a huge weight,” Eric said. “My feet feel like they’re in cement blocks and stuck to the ground.”

I was surprised. Eric hadn’t been that precise with me.

The neurologist guided Eric through various motor activities, including finger-tapping, foot-tapping, and leg lifts. He moved Eric’s arms. “Come out into the hall and walk away from me,” he said.

I poked my head out while he observed my husband’s erratic stride.

“Come on back. Face the wall. Put your hands down at your side. I’m going to pull on your shoulders. Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall,” the doctor said.

Eric momentarily lost his balance but caught himself with a few stabilizing steps.

Receiving answers

We returned to the office for more questions, but I didn’t see the through line. As a writer and producer, I’m accustomed to seeking connections to create a story. The doctor asked Eric about any recent falls, trouble chewing and swallowing, constipation, and tiny handwriting. My brow furrowed. I wondered what the neurologist was zeroing in on. His note-taking and brief nods enabled me to see him connecting dots in his mind with a clearer picture of my husband’s ailment.

Eric looked furtively at me and squeezed my hand. I smiled despite holding my breath. I swallowed to summon moisture in my mouth without success. Tension knotted my shoulders.

The doctor looked up. “I have been diagnosing and treating Parkinson’s disease for a long time, and all signs point to that,” he said.

Eric’s grip on my hand tightened. I furiously blinked away tears, except the few already spilling down my cheeks. I felt like we’d been pushed off a cliff without a parachute and were free-falling into an abyss. My mind raced. My heart skipped a few beats. I vaguely heard Eric ask the doctor if he was confident in his diagnosis.

“Yes,” the doctor replied. “An autopsy would give us a full interpretation, but we aren’t going to do that.”

“God, I hope not!” I blurted.

“Parkinson’s is a chronic, progressive, neurological condition, but we can manage it with medications and other treatments,” he explained.

“How long do people live with Parkinson’s?” Eric asked.

Parkinson’s is not fatal,” the doctor replied. “The condition won’t cause death, but complications from Parkinson’s-related issues, like falls, infections, and choking, might. Years of research, meds, and breakthroughs enable us to help people with Parkinson’s live a near-normal life expectancy.”

We left the clinic frightened and uncertain about our future. That’s when I dug into my producer instincts and problem-solving skills. I took Eric’s hand.

“We will get through this,” I assured him. “No matter what, we’re in this fight together.”

Next April will mark 10 years since Eric’s Parkinson’s diagnosis. A decade later, it remains our “WE Journey.”


Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.

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