Fighting Time: One Man's Battle Against Parkinson’s

Photos by Harri Phu

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor E Frankl

At 66, Adrian Unger is a walking contrast. On one hand, he's a grandpa, a former compounding pharmacist, and a musician. On the other hand, he is a boxer, a corner-man and a Parkinson’s Disease (PD) sufferer. What is more astounding is that he only started his training in the sweet-science in his late 50s, after he was diagnosed with the disease.

When people hear this, they often raise an eyebrow. There is no direct link between PD and pugilism, so it's understandable why the public reacts this way. The poster boy for both boxing and the disease is Muhammad Ali, which is why the sport is associated with the onset of dementia and neurological damage.

For starters, scientists recently stumbled upon a beneficial link connecting neuro-degenerative diseases and vigorous exercise, like martiala arts. This gives validity to Adrian’s cause but his reasons are much more simple than that. He believes, simply, that when you stop moving, you die. “Immediately after the shock diagnosis, I made a vow to Judy, my loving wife, that I would do everything in my power to stay out of a wheelchair and would fight hard to maintain my independence in living," Adrian explained. "I had watched my father spend over 25 years in a wheel chair because of PD. Unfortunately, dad would not exercise, and was completely dependent on others. If I did end up like my dad, it would not have been because I hadn’t tried.”

For the last decade Adrian and his neurologist have believed that boxing may be what is slowing down his decline, the landslide that is typical in the disease and now they have science to back it. He believes in the power of boxing so much that he created the Punchin’ Parko’s program, a no-contact program specifically designed to help Parkinson’s sufferers combat the devastating symptoms of the disease.

Although it has been met with some resistance from both inside and outside the PD community, it is starting to make some headway. The official launch is in July and Adrian is putting everything into it. He is battling time, age and creeping symptoms as he races to establish his legacy.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor E Frankl

Each day I watch Adrian arrive at the Academy, sit in the reception and struggle to make it into class. Some days he arrives with a hand full of treats for the staff and a yiddish joke that leaves most people laughing and scratching their heads. Some days he sits there, trembles and goes home. On others he may slowly slink out of class, losing the battle with frustration and the limitations of his condition. He always returns the next day and tells us that there is only so much you can blame on Parkinson’s, something that reveals an underlying and indomitable pride.

“When you say Parkinson's, most think of people who shuffle, mumble, gait, shake and have no voice control. They speak of the blank “Parkinson’s face”where the muscles just drop. The hardest part is what you can’t blame on Parkinson's.”

He speaks of those who allow themselves a rapid decline without a fierce battle. Parkinson’s isn’t directly fatal, but the complications of the disorder are ranked in the top 15 killers of people in the United States. One of the main consequences is inactivity and the depression, obesity and health decline that follows.

Punchin’ Parko’s is Adrian’s attempt to change the way Parkinson’s sufferers look at exercise and most importantly; the way they see themselves.

“Sure boxing is challenging and fun. It also brings with it the humor and magic of the gym environment, something that is healing in and of itself. You learn not to take yourself so seriously, that suffering is a shared experience and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Parkinson’s is known to be hereditary and Adrian was forced to watch his fathers decline amid a deadly cocktail of Parkinson’s, Diabetes and Obesity.

"I had a slight tremor for many years and I went to a neurologist, because my father had it, we had a history and that helped diagnose it. It was one of those days you don’t forget. Dad has been so good to me, he gave me Diabetes, high blood pressure and Parkinson’s. He was very generous with his diseases. I even got them 10 years before him," he says in a lighthearted tone.

Like most people he had ait wont happen to meattitude that we all have about life. Then it happens, something that changes everything. Soon follow the feelings of anger, blame and denial. At some stage you hit acceptance, you realize one simple truth, you have to just make it work.

“It’s a hopeless feeling when your body gives out and your mind is still sharp. What concerns me most are the off periods, the periods where the drugs wear off. Sometimes your tablets don’t work well and sometimes they take quite a while to be absorbed. So I time them so they don’t wear off during physical activity. Otherwise I can’t do anything, I go weak and can barely walk. It only takes a few seconds.”

Out of desperation, he took up boxing, in hopes that he could maintain a regular exercise regime. A decade later he is in better shape than he has ever been, but it didn’t come easily. Adrian describes himself as someone never really attracted to team sports, let alone the pugilistic arts.

“I still can’t get over this “romance” I have with boxing. In my earlier days, I was not sporty or physical, but enjoyed playing the piano, live theatre acting, ten-pin bowling, golf,  and I took up lawn bowling shortly after getting married. So, I definitely wasn’t a physical person!

After developing PD, because of my tremors and rigidity, I could no longer perform my compounding duties at work, so I made the decision to sell the pharmacy and retire. I had many patients who suffered from PD and who had a vast spectrum of physical and mental disorders due to this wretched disease. I had to cease playing bowls as I had difficulty in gripping the bowl. But surprisingly, I kept boxing!”

Shortly after just by chance, as in most life changing events, he bumped into my mother and that is where our story together begins.

“Liam played with my son Jeremy. Dylan was just a little terror. I met their mom on a Sunday morning at a news agency by chance. She noticed my tremor; I was newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was still coming to terms with it. She asked what I was doing with myself and I said boxing, which is not exactly what the doctor ordered. She told me her boys opened a gym nearby. I wasn’t sure about it, I felt like I might be a drag, but a few weeks later I presented myself and Liam scratched his head, not sure what to do with me. 8 years later, we still haven’t made our mind up." Adrian recalls, laughing.

Adrian wasn’t alone in his concerns; both my brother and I were not sure how to approach someone with his condition. He assured us that anything the youth could do, he could do better, so we agreed to give it a go. We were both still competitive fighters and were focused on building fighters like us. We were worried he would get hurt and slow things down. With hindsight I bear some shame at how we perceived Adrian and his condition, but we were soon shocked by his resilience. Still today it isn’t rare that on occasion a young fighter will avoid working with him, their mind focused on their own career, forgetting that one day they might be in his position.  

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” Viktor E Frankl

Looking back we were blessed to have someone like Adrian walk through our door and we are glad we took the chance. He is an incredibly proud man that resents pity more than anything. He also fails to realize how much our meeting was a life-changing event for us too. Martial arts aim to make the weak strong, but there is more than one kind of strength, some of which can’t be taught through rigorous hours on the mat. Some kinds of strength can only be gained through osmosis, through an unwitting teacher that demonstrates strength through their struggle and their refusal to lie down. Adrian is one of those people.

As I watch Adrian’s daily struggles I am acutely aware of my own need to save others before saving ourselves. I wondered what I was avoiding in my own life. As a borderline generation X/Y, my struggle is that of my generation, our search for meaning in a landscape overdosed on freedom and choice.

In both a curse and a gift, Adrian has been given his meaning and we often laugh together about his lack of choice in the matter. In one way it helps me take solace that he has found the thing we all search for and that gives me some satisfaction.

Almost a decade on, he not only trains and spars on a regular basis, but he has worked his way to becoming a coach and assisting with the cornering at fights.

Twice a year he visits his neurologist and he tells me that they end with the same conversation; the doctor telling him that he loves it when Adrian visits; it brightens his day and that the deterioration is much slower than he expected. Unfortunately for a lot of sufferers, this is not the case. 

“Many of the sufferers go down hill quickly and they think there is not much you can do about it. They say that you don’t die from Parkinson’s, but you die with it. It’s the sedentary lifestyle that results from it. That’s why Punchin’ Parko’s is so important, I want to show them that it’s not hopeless.”

His program starts in July and he is hoping for the support of the Parkinson’s community, but he knows he has an uphill battle; not only against his body, his waning time, but against the sufferers own perceptions of themselves.


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