Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I think I've told you that I'm a retired lawyer, right?  Well, I'd like to tell you about the last weeks and months of my job and how desperately I tried to hang on while I was losing my memory and measurable control over my body.

Parkinson's does weird things to people.  There's no set of symptoms that applies to everyone. Tremors, a shuffling walk, and dementia are probably the ones you've heard about.  There are many others though, and some Parkinson's patients only have one or two symptoms.  I have about five, which are @ 90% controlled on medication except for one: my short term memory.  It's @ 50% there, which is an improvement!  I work very hard to keep what I have.  I do various "brain exercises" every day -- puzzles, easy math, matching games, that sort of thing.  I talk to myself, which drives my family nuts.  But it's my way of taking notes -- if I walk around and repeat to myself what I need to do it helps me remember.  My husband and kids have a rule -- if I don't specifically say their names I'm not talking to them.  It saves time!

My first PD symptoms, as I've told you, occurred in 2008 about a year before I was diagnosed.  I had movement and balance issues and of those, the balance was most significant.  I fell a lot.  I began carrying a cane and I sometimes used a walker.  But honestly, when it came to work that wasn't such a big deal.  Frighteningly, I was beginning to lose my short term memory.  At first it was small things, like leaving my glasses, keys, or a pen somewhere.  But as the months went along, and my physical symptoms got worse or new ones appeared, my memory loss became more significant.

I was a trial lawyer, and I litigated patent infringement cases.  That requires a lot of brain power, as you can imagine.  BPD (before Parkinson's Disease) it was a very difficult job to begin with.  It helps if you're an engineer -- I wasn't, I was a nurse. I had many lawyer/engineer friends who spent time teaching me the way of patents.  With a lot of effort I gradually got comfortable with the language, theories, and ideas of patent litigation and I truly liked my job.

When my PD symptoms started to appear in 2008 I thought I was just over-worked and tired.  At work, I started to forget things; not like "where did I leave my glasses" but "what is that thingamajig next to the doohickie" (referring to a patent, of course).  I've always been a pretty likable person so I relied on that to cover up what I feared was a serious problem.

As the months went on it became nearly impossible to use my "scintillating personality" to cover up my memory loss.  Patent litigation is an intense, high stakes field of law.  It requires a sharp mind that can withstand 60+ hour work weeks and loads of travel. I knew I was losing it but I frantically tried to hold on.  I wasn't dedicated to my career, it was a means to and end.  I had to work and I saw it quickly slipping through my hands.
One event that stands out is an early morning deposition I had to take in Taiwan, which is exactly 12 hours later than Eastern Standard Time.  When you're in a completely different time zone naturally you get a little messed up.  But what I experienced was worse than that. I began the deposition and I could remember absolutely nothing about the patent at issue. Nothing.  There I am, staring at the witness trying very hard to remember what I was supposed to ask him, when my savior -- my associate who accompanied me to Taiwan -- stepped in.  He started handing me notes and documents that were intended to jar my memory.  To this day I'm grateful to him for saving me from near panic and meltdown.

After I returned home my work situation started on a rapid downhill slide.  The harder I tried, the more I forgot.  I knew that it was becoming obvious to everyone -- I imagine they thought I was just stupid.  I was finally diagnosed with PD in August 2009.  I retired the next day.  I have to tell you, it was such a big relief.  Have you ever had a dream where you go take a final exam but you've never been to the class?  I lived thatIt was the most frightening time in my life.  To not have that hanging around my shoulders anymore is blissful. 

As I sit here today I think back on what I used to do and I cannot fathom being able to ever do it again.  Heck, I can't read books anymore!  I can't remember what I've read, so the thing never makes any sense to me.  But you know what?  You find new things you enjoy.  Me?  I've found my artsy-craftsy side.  I knit, needlepoint, and crochet.  I love making silk flower arrangements, wreaths, and what nots.  The craft stores are my new besties.  At least there's one part of my brain that's still alive and kicking!

©Evelyn Heilbrunn
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