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My Dear Friend Bob

My dear friend Bob passed away in July 2011 while on a trip to the Central Coast of California, visiting with his brother and sister-in-law. He had always wanted to see that part of the coastline, particularly the Hearst Castle there. His Parkinson’s disease had been progressing relatively slowly, but while he continued to maintain his life and life-style, the disease was clearly holding him back in many significant ways. His walk was slow and stiff, for instance, and he was told by his doctor to carry a cane so he would not fall…He refused and tried bravely to live with the difficult gait along with other symptoms that slowed him down.

Bob had spent a lifetime as a top Foreign Service agent working in Japan.  He spoke Japanese fluently and had many friends in the country, including several high-level government officials. In fact, he and I and his brother and sister-in-law had just come back from a spectacular three-week trip to Japan, planned by all of Bob’s many friends there.

His death was a result of his throat muscles freezing up and he choked on a piece of meat while at dinner on the night before he was scheduled to come home from California.  They tried to remove the meat but nothing worked, including the Heimlich maneuver. He went into cardiac arrest and the paramedics who came were able to revive him in the ambulance on the way to the emergency room.  But he lapsed into coma in the ICU with no brain activity for five days and died 11 hours after being taken off the respirator.

One of the scariest side effects of Parkinson disease is this freezing up of the throat muscles. The idea of choking is terrifying to many sufferers. Bob did have several previous incidents when something stuck in his throat and while he never focused on the negative, this did frighten and embarrass him. I remember one night when I was with him at a dinner for a Japanese organization he supported. A friend reached into his throat and pulled out the piece of meat choking him as he lay on the floor where he had fallen.

For me, this points to how critical it is to invest as much time and money as possible in research to find the cure that would do away with the life and life-style-threatening symptoms like frozen throat muscles. Existing medications for Parkinson’s disease do very little to address it. The Michael Stern Parkinson’s Research Foundation is an organization that is in existence to encourage – and fund – the research leading to a cure.

Throughout Bob’s life, he was never bored, nor boring. He had a keen eye for the beauty in what most might miss seeing altogether. He delighted in simple pleasures and in his experiences with exquisitely elaborate natural and man-made wonders. He was brilliant, but not condescending. He loved his family and his friends, a bird’s song and flight, travel and new experiences, dinner out before the opera, a play, concert or ballet, New York, all things Japanese, and his independence.

Bob’s life, interrupted so cruelly by Parkinson’s Disease, reminds us of the critical importance of research to find a cure, allowing men and women who suffer it to renew an unbroken continuity with the life – and the friends and family — they love.


Category: Personal Stories