She was typing out an email when her hands started to shake. She knew it wasn’t just caffeine jitters or residual shakes from a sugary snack. It felt different, but she wouldn’t know that her reality was about to change entirely until her diagnosis a couple of months later. Laurie Prochnow has Parkinson’s Disease.
The neurological disorder, which affects about 20,000 Wisconsinites and a million Americans, most commonly consists of tremors, limb rigidity, slowness of movement, and gait and balance issues. It usually comes on slowly over the course of years and is diagnosed around age 60.
For the successful, self-made owner of Management Recruiters of Wausau (MRI), it wasn’t an easy revelation to make to a Rotary Club luncheon in February, but it was one she felt she could no longer avoid. Conversely, she saw an opportunity. She felt that embracing and publicizing the realities of her malady could lead to healing of a whole different sort.
“I wanted to know if there were any support groups in the Wausau area,” Prochnow said. “There weren’t any, So I called up Laurie (Couillard, of the Wisconsin Parkinson Association) and said, ‘Guess what. I want to be a facilitator.’”
When her executive placement service won the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year award in 2004, Prochnow came to realize what was possible when the right support system was in place. So, she saw it as a next logical step, as her condition became more prevalent in the past five years, to lead an effort to manage it.
“It affects people so differently,” she said. “You get a rigidity to your fingers. It’s hard to pick up pills. It takes longer to eat. Even the medications affect people differently. If people don’t know that, I felt it was important to share that with them.”
Meanwhile, businesses everywhere are struggling to find workers — the flip side of a unemployment rate that is under 3 percent that also signifies a healthy economy. So, those same employers are faced with the challenge of retaining the people they have.
That’s where Prochnow’s connections to the business community come in. To her, fomenting a healthy and thriving employment environment means deepening the understanding of what some affected workers might be dealing with.
“My hands would shake so much I couldn’t type,” she said. “My left side would be more affected than my right. My handwriting gets really small.”
They’re symptoms that she came to realize she shared with someone very close to her.
“I now believe my mother had it,” Prochnow said. “She did the same thing with her writing; it would get very small, illegible.”
Another elucidation of the disease is the reality of “off” times. Those taking medication can go in cycles where they can function at or near normal for several hours, then find the treatment wearing off for periods lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours.
“For me, it’s maybe every four hours,” Prochnow said. “So, it’s a real challenge. I can feel when it happens.”
The most effective treatment to an off time is simply activity, according to Couillard, director of group engagement for WPA. She encourages employers to allow employees time during the day to attend exercise classes and group meetings, which aren’t always available in the evenings.
“Activity helps,” Prochnow said. “Aqua therapy. And I love dancing. That really helps with Parkinson’s.”
Interestingly, so does boxing, according to Couillard, putting a literal meaning to fighting the disease. It’s not one that has come easily. Even Prochnow, with her head held high, didn’t begin her journey on the sunny side of the street.
“I thought it had to be a mistake,” she said. “I wanted to kill myself, but once my medication got under control, that all went away.”
Prochnow’s and Couillard’s first group meetings gathered in the afternoon and evening of Feb. 28, drawing 32 people total.
“I’ve spent my whole career helping people,” Prochnow said. “Now, I’ve decided to take control of this disease, not let it control me.”