Nick Honerkamp said he literally saw the writing on the wall.
Honerkamp, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Anthropology professor emeritus, retired from teaching duties in December 2019 after spending 39 years at the University. Several years before he stopped teaching, though, he was starting to see signs that something was wrong.
“There were clear signals for me. I just couldn’t write or read very well,” he said, “and I saw it in my chalk writing.
“I didn’t even know what Parkinson’s was when I was diagnosed, and like most folks that get this disease, I tried to think of it as temporary. Believe me, I’ve learned that it goes in one direction—and I understand which direction it goes.”
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April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, and nearly 1 million people in the U.S. and more than 10 million worldwide have the disease—a neurological ailment that primarily affects dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra.
While symptoms usually appear gradually over time, the progression of symptoms varies greatly from one person to the next due to the complexity of the disease.
But there are groups in Chattanooga working to stem the tide, including UTC occupational therapy program members.
Erin Melhorn, an assistant professor in occupational therapy and the program’s capstone coordinator, has worked in the field since 2007. As an occupational therapist, she specializes in older adult populations and is trained in a particular protocol that treats people with Parkinson’s disease.
“I can demonstrate what Parkinson’s disease looks like,” Melhorn said, “and we talk about how Parkinson’s disease impacts everybody in their daily lives. Everybody wants to talk about the difficulty walking and the tremors, but there’s a lot more to Parkinson’s disease: Social implications. Trouble sleeping. It’s hard to button your shirt.”
This semester, Melhorn said the occupational therapy program has 24 capstone students working with various area organizations, including the Creative Discovery Museum, the Chattanooga Therapeutic Rec Department, Downside Up and Love’s Arm.
And at a fitness club in Ringgold, Georgia, housing Rock Steady Boxing Chattanooga.
“Rock Steady has become this cool partnership,” Melhorn said. “They give us opportunities for research, and then Kristen lets me send the students there so they can see firsthand the benefits of hard work.”
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Kristen Schillaci doesn’t look at the people in the gym as patients or participants, calling them “fighters” and “boxers.”
For the last six years, Schillaci—a certified occupational therapy assistant—has been the owner of Rock Steady Boxing Chattanooga, an affiliate of the nationwide organization.
Rock Steady Boxing Chattanooga is a non-contact boxing-based curriculum serving people with Parkinson’s disease. The Parkinson’s fighters come for exercise and boxing three afternoons a week, with an emphasis on gross motor movements, balance, coordination, core strength and rhythm.
The fighters circuit around the gym, rotating from station to station to use speed bags, punching bags, dumbbells, kettlebells and other fitness center equipment. They also do circuit-based training using all the functional movements that the body goes through in a day.
Then they put on boxing gloves.
“I’ve always had a bond with these Parkinson’s fighters; they always have a different drive to me with a sense of humor, wit and a strong will to keep pushing through,” Schillaci said. “So at Rock Steady, we’ve incorporated what it is this person with Parkinson’s is fighting.
“They’re fighting posture. They’re fighting balance. They’re fighting the tremors and the fine motor control. They’re fighting the ability to rotate their trunk and pick up their feet. Boxing incorporates all of that with the hand/eye movements, the coordination, the boxing itself.”
Schillaci said the forced intensity aspect of boxing makes a difference for people with Parkinson’s.
“It takes a good bit of coordination to map out those movements, so we give them straight commands in class; their brain has to say what that command is and translate it to action. It requires them to do all these different things,” she explained.
“It’s hard. That’s what makes the difference.”
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The Rock Steady boxers call her “Amazing Grace.”
Grace Sanford, the recipient of a UTC bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science in 2019, is getting ready to walk across the McKenzie Arena stage once again when graduate school students participate in commencement ceremonies on May 6.
Sanford’s occupational therapy clinical doctoral degree comes on the heels of spending 14 weeks working with Rock Steady as part of her capstone project.
“We go on clinical rotations throughout our schooling and we learn how to do most of the health-related stuff, but the capstone is designed to use our other skills like program development,” said Sanford, who came to UTC after attending Girls Preparatory School—located less than one mile from campus.
When she started at Rock Steady at the beginning of the year, Sanford conducted a needs assessment to determine what could be changed or altered. She found out right away that caregiver education was of utmost importance.
“I learned more about just the Parkinson’s patient and Parkinson’s population in general,” Sanford said. “Yes, it’s hard for them to walk and they have cognition issues, but I felt like I learned what was more important to them specifically. They were really worried about their nutrition and their loved ones—and how it affected them.
“Taking care of someone who has Parkinson’s disease can be really taxing on the caregiver. I wanted to make sure that they had the resources they needed.”
Sanford created a handbook for loved ones of those with Parkinson’s because they weren’t given resources upon diagnosis.
She was also heavily involved in implementing a new Rock Steady program called Pedaling for Parkinson’s, soliciting funding and Echelon spin bike donations while promoting the program with local neurologists and physician’s groups. She then helped set up and train the participants.
Pedaling for Parkinson’s is now offered three mornings a week.
“I felt like I succeeded in giving them resources and things they’ll continue to use through the program,” Sanford said.
Other UTC occupational training students getting ready to start their clinicals, including—on this April Monday afternoon—Annadele Benson, Hayden Veronick and Kendall Jeter, have participated in the Rock Steady workouts with the boxers.
“You can only talk about this so much in the classroom. You have to see this in action to learn about Parkinson’s,” Melhorn said.
“The boxers really enjoy when we have students come here, especially for capstone projects, because the focus is on them,” Schillaci said. “I think they appreciate having that outside person doing research on them because it’s all about trying to do things to help them and their disorder and their disease.”
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When he’s not in the gym, Honerkamp often can be found running, bicycling, walking his dog or playing bass guitar in The Pool—a British Invasion cover band.
In fact, The Pool will be performing at a Kickin’ It for Parkinson’s kickball tournament fundraiser on Saturday, April 30, at the Barnhart Circle Fields in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
“I can’t play to the level that I am accustomed to,” he said, “but I’ve been able to jump rope over the problems you might expect. It’s a lot of fun.”
Honerkamp said Rock Steady has been “a godsend” thanks to the program’s robust attack against Parkinson’s.
“This was something I really needed,” he said, “and I don’t think I’m as bad as I could be for what Parkinson’s does to you.
“In my opinion, and I think it’s shared to some extent with everybody there, the people at Rock Steady are increasing our lifespan by slowing Parkinson’s down. We are very fortunate to be part of the program working with people like Kristen and Grace.”