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Short-term goals help deal with Parkinson's

Thursday April 29, 2010

HEATHER IBBOTSON

The Expositor - Former commercial pilot Karl Kirner had logged 20,000 hours in the air before he was grounded by Parkinson's disease a little more than two years ago.

The Brantford man had always been on the go. When he wasn't working, he'd be building a backyard deck, downhill skiing, gardening or mountain biking. Since his diagnosis, he's had to say goodbye to those activities, too.

"I've slowed way down," he said.

Even yoga became too tiring. Kirner mostly makes do with taking walks, although he did enjoy some golf Tuesday.

"It's a tough go," he said. Parkinson's disease is a degenerative, incurable neurological disorder characterized by muscle rigidity, tremors, slowness, and a loss of balance and fine motor skills. Cognitive symptoms can include memory loss and an inability to handle several tasks at once.

The illness develops when the brain stops producing dopamine, a chemical that carries signals between nerves in the brain. There is no cure but drugs can temporarily alleviate some symptoms.

Kirner, 56, lost his job as an Airbus 320 pilot with Air Canada in late 2007 due to his illness. He had flown for more than 30 years and piloted float planes, cargo planes, executive jets and passenger jets.

Now, he gets up each morning, "shuffles around" and downs the first of six daily doses of pills designed to prompt production of a dopamine-like substance in the brain.

"I can have many ups and downs even during the day," he said.

Kirner's life has changed completely since he first noticed something was wrong in early 2007. That's when he started missing certain dance steps that he had known for years.

"I didn't think too much of it" at first, he said.

His condition worsened that fall to the point where he could only walk in "half-steps," he said.

Rounds of doctor visits and tests culminated in the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in early 2008.

"By that time, I was shuffling on my feet and walking slowly and stiff," said Kirner, adding that he has not experienced the shaking that often characterizes the disease. He has trouble with balance and also suffers pain in his neck and arms.

It is hard to be optimistic when faced with a progressive disease like this, he said. However, he has received constant support from his wife, Donna, who is a nurse. "She knows what it's all about," he said.

The couple's two adult sons live in B.C.

Kirner said the local Parkinson's disease support group is helpful because it offers an opportunity to talk with other people and see how they deal with their limitations.

Kirner is now learning to "make short-term goals and be happy with them." His advice to the newly diagnosed is simple.

"Don't stop. Keep doing as much as you can for as long as you can," he said.