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Mike Dennis, a positive spirit

Wednesday December 29, 2010

Former pediatrician still going strong despite Parkinson's disease
Leigh Kelley

BlueRidgeNow.com - Dr. Mike Dennis walks with a pronounced gait and his hands shake as he struggles with his ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease. But the 62-year-old hasn't let that slow him down one bit.

Dennis has devoted the majority of his professional life to children and it shows in the way his eyes light up when he speaks of them, whether it's one of his former patients or his own children. He worked as a pediatrician at Hendersonville Pediatrics for many years before opening Rainbow Pediatrics with a partner in 2001.

Dennis said he was "lucky" that he knew what he wanted to do with his life from an early age.

"I was changing my sister's diapers when I was 5 years old, and that's when I knew that I wanted to be a doctor and work with children," he said.

Dennis practiced medicine as a pediatrician for 35 years. The onset of Parkinson's three years ago meant that he had to give up his life's work — about 15 years earlier than he expected, he added.

"My goal was to practice 50 years, but I didn't make it," Dennis said.

Instead, he has focused on two important coping behaviors that he discovered in his research on Parkinson's — exercise and a positive spirit.

"My issue was that I had worked 100 hours a week on a regular basis and then suddenly it was gone," he said. "So I had to find a way to fill up 100 hours a week. And one thing on my bucket list was to eliminate negative emotions."

To that end, he adopted the words of a poem given to him by a friend titled "The Way To Happiness." It reads: "Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simple, accept little, give much. Fill your life with love. Scatter sunshine. Forget self, think of others. Do as you would be done."

They are words he has inscribed on his heart to help him cope, Dennis said.

"That has become my mantra," he said. "I use it to help deal with negative emotions. It makes a big difference."

Dennis stays active part by doing a regular physical therapy program that includes teaching a movement course to two Parkinson's support groups.

A large part of his career was spent taking care of children with brain injuries so that helped as well, he added.

"I have what is called ‘atypical' Parkinson's — it doesn't respond to medication that is used for typical Parkinson's disease patients," Dennis said. "The average onset for Parkinson's is 58 years of age and the youngest case is 17."

Another part of his daily routine is a nap in the morning and a nap in the afternoon.

"A recent study showed that a one-hour nap a day increases your IQ by 25 percent, so I take four," he laughed, adding that a sense of humor has helped him keep a positive outlook on life.

Devotion to community

Dennis combines his passion for fly fishing and youth by presenting Rivercourse, a fly fishing camp for one week every summer in southern Haywood County for kids ages 13-15 years-old. The camp is sponsored by N.C. Trout Unlimited.

It's an event he loves, although his Parkinson's has forced him to modify how he participates in it over the years, he said.

"It got to be too unsafe for me to be in the water, so now I teach," Dennis said.

He also puts on a comedy class for children from 6-12-years-old for one week every summer at Hands On! in downtown Hendersonville.

He added that he has started being very involved with local musicians through a monthly concert series where they perform at Green Creek Winery in Polk County. He also works with local farmers markets and was recently invited to be on the board of the city market in Asheville, he said.

Community service work that is near and dear to his heart is with Hope Academy, an organization in Hendersonville that is operated by Betty Edwards. It's a day care for adults with severe neuro-developmental problems originally started for children who had aged out of the school system and had nowhere to go, he added.

"A lot of them were former patients of mine," he said. "They run without any federal funds. I try to get people to support them financially. Mud Creek Baptist Church provides the facility for it."

Another favorite project is Kids Cook Smart, an After School Program run by Krista Tortora, an area teacher who has a Masters degree in Education, he said. The concept behind it is to teach kids about good food and proper nutrition. Dennis is in the process of creating a scholarship fund for kids who can't afford the cost of the classes — another of the things he put on his bucket list, he said.

The people Dennis draws his inspiration from are his children, a daughter and a son. His daughter, Sherry, now 41, was born prematurely and had cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect a person's ability to move and maintain balance and posture. She overcame her circumstance and went on to get a master's degree in counseling. Later in her life, she developed a chronic form of Guillen-Barre, a disease of the neuromotor muscular system, he said, and is now homebound.

His son, Jason, 34, has pursued a career in broadcast journalism and is working as an anchor for a television station in Columbus, Ga.

"He's one of the youngest television anchors in the country," Dennis said proudly.

No one could blame Dennis if he wanted to feel sorry for himself or wished his life was somehow different. He is quick to tell you that he doesn't dwell on his disease or fret over finding a cure to help himself. He tells the story of an incident where his son asked him if he could pray for his father to ask God to take away his Parkinson's disease.

Dennis said he told his son, no, not to pray that prayer because he considered his ill health a gift.

"I'm a better person for it and I have met so many wonderful people who have Parkinson's disease," he said. "It's a gift and it's opened up doors for me that never would have opened for me if I had not had the disease.

"I choose to make it rewarding," he said. "If you keep your heart open, it's amazing what's out there."

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