Living with Parkinson’s, one swing at a time

Positive outlook helps former Campbell River Food Bank manager cope with incurable disease

Fraser Steenson lines up his putt on the eighth green at Sequoia Springs Golf Course as his wife Beverly marks the flag. Fraser enjoys the exercise of walking and golfing to combat his Parkinson’s symptoms.

Putting is the finicky part of golf.

Which way does the green break? Is it faster in the afternoon? Which way does the grass lie? Are there specks of dirt or leaves than can impede the ball’s progress to the hole?

Like any dedicated golfer, those are just a few of the things Fraser Steenson takes into account when he’s putting.

But Fraser, 65, has to wonder about one more intangible most golfers never have to worry about: Will his hands start to shake due to the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease, just as he’s taking his backswing?

“Sometimes they’re steady and sometimes not,” Fraser explains, as he holds up both hands to demonstrate.

The tremor in both hands is obvious, but Fraser isn’t embarrassed, and he’s never hidden the fact that he has Parkinson’s.

“I’m so proud of him. He told everyone right up front – he never stuck his hands in his pockets when they started to shake,” says Beverly, 65, his wife of 40 years.

April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, but the Steensons are best known in Campbell River for the 11 years they ran the Campbell River Food Bank. They had arrived in the coastal community in 1995 after Fraser retired from the Canadian Armed Forces.

He grew up in Vancouver and then joined the air force. He spent his career flying Sea King helicopters off the back of destroyers, as well as training new pilots.

It was during an East Coast assignment when one of Fraser’s flying buddies introduced him to his sister, Beverly, a Halifax girl. From then on, the two of them just “took off” together.

Fraser and Beverly raised two sons – and now have three grandchildren – and life was grand as they approached retirement. During his stint in the air force, Fraser was also commanding officer of all air cadet squadrons in B.C.

It was during a visit to Campbell River when he and his wife fell in love with the coastal community and decided this is where they would retire.

But it was also during one of his cadet inspections when Fraser noticed the first sign of Parkinson’s.

“It was a general salute and I noticed my hand shaking…then I was having problems writing,” he says.

Fraser was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 12 years ago, but it didn’t stop him from performing his many duties at the Food Bank – in 2003 he was named Campbell River’s Citizen of the Year.

Since then, the symptoms have slowly progressed, as Beverly observes the subtle changes.

“I’ve noticed some changes, mostly the tremor,” she says. “He doesn’t do as much writing and he gets more anxious.”

Fraser says he tends to be quieter than he was before and he doesn’t smile as often, but the symptoms of Parkinson’s differ from person to person.

“In our support group, there are no two people with the same symptoms,” Beverly points out.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but there is a treatment known as deep brain stimulation. It involves a surgical procedure where a neurostimulator – similar to a heart pacemaker – is implanted and delivers electrical stimulation to the brain.

The goal of the stimulation is to alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s such as tremor, rigidity, stiffness, slowed movement and walking problems.

But the problem for Fraser is that just one doctor in all of B.C. performs the operation and the waiting list to see the surgeon is two years long.

Fraser is waiting for his opportunity for the procedure, so he continues his regime of exercise which is also beneficial for people with Parkinson’s.

His favourite past-time, for Beverly too, is golf. Their patio home backs onto the eighth fairway at Sequoia Springs Golf Course and the couple love to walk the “garden course” together.

“With golf I find I get more exercise than most folks because I take more strokes,” Fraser says with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

Yes, the sense of humour remains intact and so is his positive outlook on life which is also so beneficial to his well-being.

“You have to take control of your life, you can’t let Parkinson’s run it for you,” he says.

Parkinson’s Facts

  • Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder which causes tremor or trembling of the arms and legs, muscle rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty speaking and swallowing.
  • Famous people with Parkinson’s: boxer Muhammad Ali, Canadian actor Michael J. Fox, the late Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau, and the late Spanish artist Salvador Dali.
  • Campbell River’s Parkinson’s disease support group meets every second Wednesday from 1:30-3 p.m. Call Pat at 250-286-1354 for more information.