When veteran nurse Suzanne Quinn began experiencing muscular-skeletal aches and chronic fatigue in her 40s, she blamed “getting older.” But her “symptoms” gradually expanded. Her gait was off, one arm wasn’t ‘swinging,’ and it was getting tougher and tougher to juggle her job’s multiple demands. To her surprise, the Glenside woman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease “even though I was only 50.”
Statistics for Parkinson’s report 50,000-60,000 new cases in the United States annually, but professionals in the field say those numbers can be unreliable because Parkinson’s symptoms can mimic aging and as a result go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The disease typically -- but not always -- affects the elderly.
When she was diagnosed seven years ago, Quinn was an occupational health nurse for a pharmaceutical firm. As part of her job, she authored a blog called YOH (Your Own Health), and she recently started a new blog -- Momentum -- for the Bala Cynwyd-based Parkinson Council.
So far, entries have ranged from reflections on her own diagnosis and the value of exercise to her foray into the world of medical marijuana. But regardless of topic, Parkinson Council Executive Director Wendy Lewis believes Quinn’s writing provides a platform for “people to commiserate and even laugh about experiences a lot of them share.”
“She sees the sunny side of everything, even with the disease,” Lewis says. “She’s living with the reality of Parkinson’s, but she’s very uplifting, a glass half-full kind of person. It’s a very emotional day when people hear a diagnosis, but even with complications, there are so many treatments available today that people can have a high quality of life even with the disease. In fact, I know one person who’s been living with it for 25 years.”
Lewis says “staying connected, not getting isolated” is vital for Parkinson’s patients.
“That’s key…not isolating yourself,” she continues. “Parkinson’s is already a disease of isolation, and one of our most important roles as the Parkinson Council is to provide resources for people so they can stay connected.”
She points to funding provided to help maintain clinical services at area hospitals and rehabilitation centers as well as “fun things that help elevate mood … like the very successful” creative workshops at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and James A. Michener Art Museum.
Lewis gets no argument from Quinn.
“I’m definitely a people person,” the latter says. “Staying upbeat, connected, part of a community … I think that’s absolutely critical. It can be exhausting at times, but with just about everything, I think, how am I going to do this and make it fun for me. Like the working out, which is so important.”
Right up there, too – “five girlfriends who are very dear to me … like my sisters.”
“We’re very close,” says Quinn, whose immediate family includes husband Robert and adult children Brianna, Hanna and Patrick. “It’s so important to have good girlfriends. They give me so many things. We don’t dwell on the Parkinson’s. It’s more like they’ll say, let’s do such-and-such, whatever, can you do that?”
The Hatboro native’s award for “something to do with class clown” when she graduated with Archbishop Wood High School’s Class of 1981 might have foreshadowed her adult approach to life. And although “the most bothersome part of Parkinson’s for me is probably forgetting my thought mid-sentence,” the thing that’s most striking about a conversation with Quinn is her dry humor and quick wit.
“I truly believe we should all be clowns,” she says. “I just love having fun. Have a beer now and then, and don’t worry about it. Life’s too short. Parkinson’s isn’t the end of the world. It hasn’t been a disaster. It’s just another layer to your life. A journey. Don’t freak out about it. Girl, get up and get on with it. I’ve always been Suzy Sunshine, probably more than ever now. At the end of the day, if you (can do) something that makes somebody’s life easier, gives them a laugh or brings them some joy, bring a smile to somebody’s face, go for it.
“In the beginning, I was cautious about telling people what was going on with me. Now, I tell everybody. I say, my arm’s shaking because I have Parkinson’s. I believe you make or break your own happiness. I’ve sort of taken ‘control.’ I laugh every single day and have fun. I hope that’s my legacy to my children: Just have fun.”
Both she and Lewis promise a good time at Oct. 12’s 18th annual Walk to Stamp Out Parkinson’s fundraiser at the Philadelphia Zoo from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The event is open to the public and routinely draws close to 2,000 participants. This year’s walkers will be cruising the zoo with former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who announced his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2018, and the Phillie Phanatic. Registration is $45. Additional information is available at www.theparkinsoncouncil.org and 610-668-4292.