Hope and Healing
Overcoming challenges brings inspiration to life.
By Ann Marie Martin
Jim Rhodes strides into the gym for Rocket City Rock Steady Boxing. His big smile and cheerful greetings let you know he’s set for his regular workout to stay in shape in his retirement years. But Jim’s in the fight of his life against an opponent he can’t touch: Parkinson’s disease.
Jerica Frazier struts into the library to share her story. Her smooth stride and stylish outfit perfect belies the fact that unlike most twenty–somethings, Jerica also wears a prosthetic limb. She lost a leg in a car crash that almost took her life.
Riley Patterson’s got the beat. Anyone watching her dance can see that. Year after year, she’s earned competition awards. Now the Sparkman High School senior is co–captain of the Varsity Dance Team. What’s harder to see are two high–tech devices sending signals to the cochlear implants she’s had since she was a toddler. Thanks to her implants, Riley hears the music.
After Parkinson’s, Jim is training for Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek from the Pyrenees in France to the shrine of St. James in Spain. Start date, May 1, 2020.
Wife Carolyn thinks he’s lost his mind, but she’s up for it, too.
“I’m calling it the Parkinson’s Walk of Hope,” Jim said. “I’ve got 12 people committed right now to doing it, three of us Parkies and a group of other people who will go along to support us who are marathoners. People can come in and walk with us for a week because everybody can’t take 40 days off. It’s 12 to 14 miles a day.
“We just want to raise awareness for Parkinson’s and say that no matter what issues you’re dealing with, you can still do stuff.”
A couple of corporate sponsors have already signed on. Any extra money raised will benefit the local Parkinson’s community, including Rock Steady Boxing and Huntsville Hospital’s Parkinson’s Care Clinic, a one–stop shop where patients can be evaluated for therapy and learn about social services that can help with disabilities.
Before Parkinson’s, Jim was no stranger to medical problems: prostate cancer, colon surgery, a significant cardiac event.
“The doctors fixed me. I did the rehab. I went back to doing everything I normally did. The Parkinson’s diagnosis was the most difficult. I’ve always been a sprinter, but I’m learning to be a good marathon runner. Parkinson’s is not a death sentence necessarily, but it’s a life sentence.”
When he was diagnosed in February 2016, Jim and Carolyn were shaken. Then they discovered Rock Steady.
The website rocksteadyboxing.org explains why it’s effective: “Parkinson’s causes a loss in many of the same elements that boxers condition to improve. And published medical research has shown that forced, intense exercise can reduce, reverse and delay Parkinson’s symptoms.”
Carolyn, fitness director at the Huntsville–Madison County Senior Center, proposed Rock Steady to Executive Director Tom Glynn and the board. They committed to paying the affiliate fee ongoing and sent Carolyn and Jim to be certified.
They launched in June 2016 with six patients. Coaches Dallas Terrell and Allen Martin were among the volunteers. By November, they had 35 to 40 boxers and needed more space. Today there are some 150 boxers with maybe 120 active. Erin Keefer of the Parkinson’s Care Clinic is a volunteer coach as well as Jim’s physical therapist.
Exercise helps, but it can’t fix everything.
“It gets tiring,” Jim said. “Sometimes you just want a day off from Parkinson’s. Every four hours you’re taking meds.”
Still, he said, “I’ve come to the point in my life that actually Parkinson’s has been a huge blessing. Out of that has grown all these wonderful relationships. If you look at those people in there, I guarantee you 90 percent of them would be sitting on the couch, and they’re not. They’re back on their lawn mowers. They’re back golfing. They’re back playing tennis. They’re playing with their grandkids. And they’re here three days a week fighting the fight of their lives.”
“I think my stubbornness got me through it,” Jerica said, describing the crash, her injuries and her recovery. “Also my support group and, of course, prayers. It also introduced me to great caregivers, doctors, nurses. Dr. Stephan Moran was my trauma surgeon.”
Moran is medical director of the Surgical & Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Huntsville Hospital. He invited Jerica to tell her story to a group of trauma doctors.
“When I did it, Dr. Moran got to introduce me. We didn’t plan it, but I wore a bright yellow dress. He said, ‘She’s my little light.’”
Jerica doesn’t always wear yellow, but she’s rarely without her trademark smile.
“I’ve always tried to have a smile on my face because you never know what somebody else is going through.”
More than two years after the Feb. 18, 2016, accident, Jerica regularly dispenses encouragement and inspiration while she draws blood at a Huntsville Hospital clinic.
She laughed as she recalled a fellow amputee who didn’t believe his phlebotomist could understand his pain. She pulled up the leg of her pants and showed him her prosthetic.
“No one can tell that I have a prosthetic because of all the amazing therapy I’ve had. I think he gave me the greatest compliment I’ve ever had.
“Throughout all of it, my mom was so amazed that the thing that upset me the most was they told me I would never wear heels again. I told them, ‘Watch me.’ Today, I’m wearing heels.”
It’s been a long road from crash to heels. It started when Jerica was driving to Northeast Community College to take a test.
“I was about 125 feet from the 18-wheeler in front of me. The car behind me hit me. They estimated him going about 80 miles an hour. He hit me and pushed me into the 18-wheeler.”
Jerica lost her left leg, broke her wrist, fractured her sternum and lacerated her liver and spleen. She almost lost her right leg.
“They told me they were sure I was going to lose my right leg to infection because there was so much debris in it. The whole time I was in Huntsville Hospital, I never had one infection. That was a blessing.”
Jerica’s smile is genuine, but it’s not her whole story. She’s cried many tears, too. She’s thankful for a strong support system, and she finds comfort in helping others.
“It helps me get through it, even on my bad days. Just sitting there and talking to somebody who’s had an amputation that’s been a little bit worse or a little bit better than mine. Everybody’s given their battle to face. You have to do it on your own, but you have people there who can cheer you on and tell you their own stories.”
The adventures of Sound Check Mama and the Bionic Girl—aka Tiffani Hill-Patterson and daughter Riley—began in October 2003. Eight days before Riley’s second birthday on Oct. 17, the little girl heard sound for the first time when her cochlear implants were turned on.
Riley clapped and grinned. Tiffani saved the video on her cellphone.
You never know how children will react. Some scream or cry. The new sounds didn’t scare Riley, but they didn’t tell her anything either.
“The change is not immediate,” Tiffani said. “When the implants are first turned on, they may be hearing things, but they don’t know what they’re hearing. They have to learn what sounds mean.”
Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sound, cochlear implants directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The outer part sits behind the ear and contains a microphone that sends sounds to a speech processor. The processor translates sounds into electrical signals that go to a transmitter in the outer coil and then to the implant itself underneath the skin. An electrode comes down through the mastoid bone and into the cochlea. The electrical signals go into the cochlea and on to the auditory nerve, which sends signals to the brain.
Implants gave Riley access. Auditory– verbal therapy gave her understanding.
Tiffani’s the department secretary for Pediatric Audiology at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children. A former editor at The Huntsville Times, she’s also a freelance journalist who writes about parenting and more on her Sound Check Mama blog. The department’s webpage, hhwomenandchildren.org/pediatric-audiology, cites her article on newborn hearing screening in Healthy Children, a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“When kids come into the office, our audiology and speech team makes sure parents understand that you don’t just have the surgery, plop this device on their head, and they’re going to start speaking sentences. It’s a long process, and it can be difficult, but it’s worth it. You get that first ‘I love you’ and that first (sigh) ‘No, Mom.’”
“She’s come a long way, and she’s worked really hard, too.”
Riley’s hard work has turned her into an accomplished dancer. Four years on Sparkman Varsity. All-American all three years at dance camp. Lots of awards. Maybe she could have done it without the implants, but she knows it would have been way more difficult.
Now she’s turning 18, and they’re visiting colleges. She plans to major in history and American Sign Language/deaf studies. She also wants to study nursing, education and forensic science. She’s been participating in a medical internship that includes visits to various departments at Crestwood, Huntsville and Madison hospitals.
Riley’s ready for her next adventure.