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Raffique Shah


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Living with Parkinson's

By Raffique Shah
August 11, 2016

I had no idea that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was seriously ill when I slammed into him last week for failing to take full charge of his responsibilities to the country. Upon reading that Dr Rowley's ailment required him to have a series of medical tests conducted in the USA, I felt I owed him a sincere apology, which I tender here.

You see, in the years I've known him, I considered Keith an exemplar of fitness that those who hold public office should emulate. Because of my training, lifestyle and experience, I've often advised holders of high office with whom I've interacted that whatever the demands on their time they should set aside at least one hour a day for some form of exercise.

Sleep and rest are also important. It makes no sense to boast of working 24-hour-days when mental stress and physical fatigue are taking a toll on your health. Also, since most such office-holders are over age fifty, and many past sixty, the risks of breakdowns are much higher.

In Keith's case, I foolishly assumed that fitness meant good health. I, more than most people, should have known better, as I shall explain later. I could not understand why the robust-looking PM was not marshalling his forces to deal with the many problems/that plague the nation.

Now that I know he has health challenges, I think that he must attend to them, and whether he seeks medical treatment in the USA or China cannot be an issue as some of his critics are saying. I imagine if his as yet unspecified illness could be effectively treated locally, he would have done so.

The issues I raised last week regarding leadership and governance remain valid. In fact, if for health reasons Rowley cannot resume duties, try to figure out who is a suitable replacement, in the PNM or outside of it. A frightening scenario, isn't it? There is a dearth of leadership material in this country that is unbelievable, even as we boast of achievements in education, entrepreneurship, shattering the gender glass ceiling, offering copious opportunities to young people and more.

As much as I have problems with the way the nation has been drifting in and out of political paralysis, I shudder to think it could get worse, not before it gets better, but before it gets worst.

Chew on that while I bare my body and my soul to readers.

Those who know me well can attest that for most of my life I have stayed fit-running or jogging from my teens into my 60s until a bad bicycle fall reduced me to power-walking three to four miles on a daily basis.

I have no lifestyle diseases, contracting asthma in my 40s, but keeping that well under control.

So when my walking pace of approximately fifteen minutes per mile began decreasing at age 65, I wrote it off to the ageing process. Problems with balance? Ageing. Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)? Ageing. Diminishing sense of smell? Ageing.

By age 66, I decided to check a neurologist, and although he could not confirm it, he said I showed symptoms of Parkinson's Disease (PD). To say I was stunned is an understatement. I was disappointed. I mean, I had exercised all my life, and while I did not adhere to eating only healthy foods, even putting on extra pounds at times, I could always run a mile in an acceptable time.

Now, approaching 70, when I should enjoy the fruits of my fitness regime, I faced living with PD, a debilitating disease for which there is no cure.

These grim prospects did bother me, but I soon decided that I would fight this beast the way I did other adversities in my chequered life, and even if I lost the battle, I'd go down fighting.

I took consolation from the fact that two of my heroes, Muhammad Ali and CLR James, also had PD, and they coped with it for more than 20 years, staying mentally active if not physically robust.

Parkinson's, which is a brain condition, has affected me: I can no longer walk far or fast enough for exercise purposes. But I have adjusted nicely to a bike that gives me a good sweat every day. I do not have tremors in my hands, but my legs act up at times. And because of balance problems, I exercise caution whenever I walk. I hardly ever leave the comfort and familiarity of my home, but I stay reasonably active and I'm coping well.

I've meant to write this column for some time. However, when I read of Keith's health issues, I thought: what better time?

As my doctor says, when we age, the risks of contracting debilitating diseases increase exponentially.

We learn to live with them even as we battle against them.

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