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Fighting Parkinson’s disease, one punch at a time

March 31, 2017 GMT

PROVO, Utah (AP) — Sheila Powell had just received the news that her father had died when she came into the doctor’s office to hear another four words that she wasn’t ready for — “You have Parkinson’s disease,” the doctor told her.

After a battle with breast cancer nearly a decade before, Powell, of Lehi, Utah, had seen her fair share of hospital rooms, doctor’s offices and operating rooms. She wasn’t ready for another fight.

“I was floored. I mean, after so many fights I thought ‘please not another thing!’ but you have to get up again. You have to fight,” Powell said. “Parkinson’s was no different for me .. I had to fight.”

The Mayo Clinic defines Parkinson’s disease as a “progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.” But the disease is so much more — apathy, depression and sometimes confusion are also side effects to the neurological disorder, on top of the telltale tremors in the extremities that one exhibits with the progression of the disorder.

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Essentially, Parkinson’s (or “PD,” as many call it) slowly takes over your body. It begins with the aforementioned symptoms and then ataxia (impaired balance) and slowed movement set in. The disease has no cure and it eventually takes the patient’s life.

After Powell’s diagnosis, she began to feel the initial symptoms: depression, apathy, a small tremor in her left arm until one day she was unable to spontaneously swing her left arm at all.

“That’s when things got bad,” said Lee Powell, Sheila’s husband. “We went to a conference up in Salt Lake, and got some info, but it wasn’t until our second conference at the U (University of Utah) that we really found something we were looking for.”

What happens next in the story is a bizarre scene involving a punching bag and a woman in her 90s up on a stage donning big pink punching gloves.

“So we’re sitting there, listening on to the speaker. Then he brings up an old woman, in her nineties. 93? 94 maybe? And she gets up out of her wheelchair and starts beating the hell out of this bag,” Lee said.

That was when things changed for Sheila. She saw that woman and said to herself, “Well, if I can do that .”

Fast forward a bit and Sheila has received a few pamphlets, some brochures here and there, and has done a bit of research into the benefits of boxing as it pertains to PD. What she found was not necessarily definitive results, but some convincing anecdotal evidence on how boxing can slow down, and even sometimes reverse, the symptoms of PD.

Enter Legends Boxing, a small boxing gym in Lehi. The gym is home to many programs, but it specifically hosts a program called Rock Steady Boxing that is geared toward patients with PD. The program is specifically designed to help patients get back the mobility, balance, strength and agility they once had.

Sherri Bickley, a certified teacher in the Rock Steady Boxing program as well as a medical social worker who does palliative and hospice care, is deeply invested in the care of her students.

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“Seeing improvement every day is something I live for,” Bickley said. “Sometimes they don’t even see it. But I see the progress every day. They (the students) are getting better and better with their agility and strength constantly.”

Bickley has been boxing for some time, but her true passion has been helping people, and she has made a career out of it as a medical social worker.

“I think this is a great way to help people and to also stay in shape, take care of your body,” she said.

As for Sheila, her fight continues on. Some days are better than others, but her doctor has encouraged her to stay in the boxing class, and to keep fighting. As of now, she is down from more pills you can count on two hands to about 2 to 3 meds a day — which in any doctor’s book is a wild success.

“There are still days where I get up and don’t want to do anything . the apathy sets in,” Powell said. “But the boxing helps.”

As a retired schoolteacher, Powell was never an athlete, or so she says. But her boxing blood began years ago, when her grandfather Terry Keller was a boxer of some renown in the Salt Lake City/Ogden area. According some records obtained by Sheila Powell, he even defeated Jack Dempsey at one point before Dempsey went on to create a name for himself.

Boxing blood or not, Sheila has created a name for herself in her own right, and wants more than anything to help others, a sentiment reminiscent of her school teaching days. She hopes to go on and become a certified teacher assistant in the Rock Steady Boxing program.

“When I box, I don’t have Parkinson’s disease,” Powell said. “And that’s all that matters . for those classes, the disease is gone.”

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Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldextra.com