Pueblo group provides support, resources for those battling Parkinson's disease

Zach Hillstrom
The Pueblo Chieftain

A little more than two years ago, Puebloan Neal Weierbach took a trip to his local neurologist to get checked out for a bad case of the tremors.

It wasn’t the first time Weierbach had experienced the involuntary muscle movements, as he was involved in a traumatic car accident about 15 years ago and had some tremors after the wreck. But these tremors seemed different —  they appeared to be getting worse.

After a series of tests to measure his balance, movement and cognition, Weierbach’s neurologist delivered some troubling news.

“She put me through a whole series of tests and said, ‘I think you have Parkinson’s Disease,’” Weierbach recalled.

“It creates a lot of angst and frustration because there’s lots of unknowns. So, in a way, it’s debilitating just because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Parkinson’s Disease is the second-most common neurodegenerative disease in the United States — trailing only Alzheimer’s —  affecting approximately 1.5 million Americans including more than 17,000 Coloradans.

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No one knows what causes Parkinson’s Disease and there is no known cure.

It’s a disorder that affects dopamine-producing neurons in the brain, forcing a wide range of symptoms that tend to develop slowly over several years.

“Parkinson’s is all about the loss of dopamine in your brain,” Weierbach said.

“And dopamine is called a neurotransmitter, so when your brain is telling your arm to move, dopamine is the transmitter that helps send that signal down to your arm muscles. So your body stops generating dopamine and that’s kind of the onset of Parkinson’s.”

Parkinson’s sufferers can experience a vast range of symptoms including tremors, body stiffness, slow movement, unsteadiness, memory loss, speech impairment and more.

Curt Phillips, left, jabs at the mitts of Hugh Parker, owner of IRT Physical Therapy, during a Parkinson's support group workout session at Eagleridge Fitness on Friday April 16, 2021.

Neal Weierbach takes the lead for Parkinson's support in Pueblo

Wanting to take his diagnosis in stride, Weierbach got involved with a local Parkinson’s group where people could come together to support one another and share information about the disease. The group also featured a monthly lecture series where experts would discuss Parkinson’s issues and ongoing research.

Not long after he began attending the monthly lectures, Weierbach said the group was contacted by the Parkinson Association of the Rockies —  a regional nonprofit that provides resources for people with Parkinson’s including exercise classes, support groups and educational seminar.

“The Parkinson Association of the Rockies, which is up in Denver, said, ‘Is there anybody here willing to volunteer to kind of take the lead on Pueblo?” Weierbach recalled.

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Weierbach was one of the few to raise his hand. He’s since come to lead PAR’s efforts in Pueblo, though he considers himself more of a “grunt” for the group than its leader.

“One of the big symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is a regression, where you tend to become introverted,” Weierbach said.

“We tend to become introverted because of all the symptoms, whether we’re ashamed of it or whatever. So we kind of tend to be loners. And I didn’t want that to happen. That’s part of why I stood up and said I’d help run this organization —  it was a way for me to stay involved, stay positive and help other people at the same time. By helping them it was helping me.”

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Tim Sanchez, center, leads a Parkinson's support group in warming up for a boxing workout at Eagleridge Fitness on Friday April 16, 2021.

Exercise and socializing are key component's of Pueblo's Parkinson support group

The Pueblo satellite office of PAR currently has about 40 members who Weierbach emails on a regular basis to keep them abreast of group activities.

Unfortunately, the speaking events have been put on hold for more than a year, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the group still meets twice per week for exercise classes and once per month for a social gathering.

The social outings are typically held on the third Thursday each month, but April's will be held this Thursday and will be a walking outing at the Arkansas Valley Riverwalk, which Weierbach has taken to calling “Walkie Talkie.”

Each Monday morning, the group does a yoga class specially catered to those suffering from Parkinson’s, allowing them to sit or support their weight with a chair while working through targeted yoga poses.

On Fridays, the group meets at Eagleridge Fitness for a non-contact boxing class, which helps participants work on their hand-eye coordination, balance and stamina.

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One of those weekly participants is Jean Johnston, a sprightly 83-year-old who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about six years ago.

“When you receive the diagnosis it’s a little bit devastating, but it’s not the end of the world and you can do things to alleviate some of the progression of it,” Johnston said.

“So when I found out about it I wanted to do everything I could. I’m a big believer in the fact that the more that you learn about it, the more active you are, the better you’re going to be.”

Hugh Parker, owner of IRT Physical Therapy, helps Jessie Quintana put on boxing gloves as part of a Parkinsons support group who meet on Friday’s to do physical exercise at Eagleridge Fitness.

While there’s several medications for Parkinson’s that can help manage symptoms, Weierbach said exercise is really the only thing that’s shown to lead to symptom improvement, which is why the group places such a high priority on exercise.

Parkinson’s research on the effect of exercise has shown it can improve a person’s gait, balance, tremors, flexibility, grip strength and even motor coordination.

“The yoga helps stretch your muscles and everything. (It) loosens you up and keeps you more active and it’s a great place to talk to people,” Johnston said.

“And the boxing … you get a lot of exercise. We’re not going to kill each other or anything but practicing the moves helps your brain to concentrate and be able to interpret or carry out whatever instructions you’re given.”

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Thursday, the group will host its Walkie Talkie event at the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk. They’ll meet at 3 p.m. at the gazebos overlooking Lake Elizabeth.

“We just get together, support each other and we’re there for one another,” Weierbach said.

“We just take a casual walk along the Riverwalk, everybody at their own pace and setting their own distance, to just get together, talk and support each other.”

April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month —  designated as such to raise awareness about complexities of the disease and the resources available to those who suffer from it.

Asked what people should be most aware of when it comes to the debilitating disease, Weierbach said it’s important to keep in mind that no one knows what causes Parkinson’s and that a diagnosis “is not the end of the world.”

“It can be managed,” Weierbach said. “You can still have a fulfilling and forward-moving life.”

To find out more about Parkinson’s Disease and Pueblo resources, visit parkinsonrockies.org/about-us/satellite-communities/pueblo/.

For more information on the group in Southern Colorado, Weierbach can be reached at nweierbach@yahoo.com. 

Chieftain reporter Zach Hillstrom can be reached at zhillstrom@gannett.com or on Twitter @ZachHillstrom