Not shaken by Parkinson’s disease
“Everybody probably sees my hand shaking so why pretend all is well?” says Cherry Ward-Vogt. The mum of three is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, but she is determined not to allow it to rob her of her joie de vivre. The 57-year-old Barbadian, now living in Switzerland, says she is getting on with the business of living despite being gradually slowed down by the effects of the disease on her motor skills.
“I think I am coping very well because I have a very positive attitude. It is a challenge . . . . It is a major challenge, but it hasn’t affected my spirits,” she told EASY magazine.
Sitting on the tastefully decorated porch of the St Lucy home where she is spending two months holiday with her father Louis Ward, Cherry’s attractive face lights up as she talks about the debilitating disease. Her right hand shakes continuously and occasionally she reaches out with the left and steadies it.
Eight years ago, the trained aesthetician was having a manicure in New York and noticed her little finger was shaking. Puzzled by this, she consulted her doctor in Zurich “and he sent me for a battery of tests including an MRI and they found nothing”. She went to a neurologist next and was told she had a central tremor. Five months later she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“I was surprised at first because I was only then 50 and I immediately thought ‘how do I tell my three children’.”
“I hesitated at least four or five months before I told them.”
Her three children Annaig, Solange and Bastien – at that time ages 21, 20 and 16, respectively – learnt of their mother’s illness over dinner.
“I just sat them down and we had dinner that evening. I just said ‘I have to say something to you’. I read up as much as I could so I was informed by
the time I told them so it was not a shock for them or for me.”
Their only question was “mummy, are you going to die”” and she gave them the reassurance “everybody has to die but you can’t die from Parkinson’s disease. You actually die from complications of the disease.”
Eight years later, Cherry’s children are grown up and getting on with their lives. She too is forging ahead with hers.
“I asked myself how I am going to get the best out of my life,” and aware of the different ways the disease she calls the “designer’s disease” affects each victim, she started doing research and consulting doctors in an effort to find out what would be her likely prognosis.
Separated from her husband Nadim (“with whom I still have a great relationship”) at the time of the diagnosis and with children essentially grown up, she realised she would soon be completely on her own: “I had to decide how I would handle this situation.”
Cherry does not hide her disease and she is on a crusade to encourage others similarly afflicted to follow her example. She volunteered at the Parkinson’s World Congress in Montreal in 2013 which proved to be “an energetic, empowering and emotional experience”.
“When I left there I felt like I had to do something for Parkinson’s.”
That something is today’s Parkinson’s Walk and 5K run taking place in Speightstown, St Peter, and she is thrilled that a fellow “Parki”, American doctor Mark Cranston has offered to join the effort. She wants to bring Barbadian “Parkis” out of their shells and “let the world see they are still functioning individuals, mentally adept”.
“What I hope to get out of this is to raise awareness not only in Barbados but throughout the Caribbean. I also want to set up a foundation. It is important that people know that we have a problem so we are not ostracised and condemned.”
Only once has she experienced any semblance of ostracism. On that occasion in Zurich her shaking was mistaken for drunkenness.
“People are so kind and they always want to help” but she insists on maintaining her independence. Offers of assistance are more often than not met with a polite and gracious “Thank you so much but I have to do this on my own.”
So aware are her friends, they often tell her “Cherry I am not asking to help you. When you are ready, just shout.”
At the dining table when it becomes apparent that knife and fork coordination is posing some difficulty, hardly anyone notices because she would already have alerted others at the table that “I have a challenge.” But anyone who presses is told outright “I have Parkinson’s”.
“I live alone and I intend to continue doing that and just striving to continue to operate as best I can,” Cherry said.
She often jokes at herself, and when fumbling while lighting a cradle, she seeks to erase questions in the mind of the innocent onlooker by explaining, “that’s how Parkinson’s people light candles.
“It is the essence of life. You can’t say I have a chronic illness and I am going to shut myself in.”
Before Parkinson’s, Cherry had led a very active and exciting life. She migrated to the United States soon after leaving Christ Church Girls’ Foundation School; earned a BA degree in theatre arts and French; went on to acquire a Master’s in international communications, and secured a job with public television (PBS) where she met her Swiss husband.
The move to Switzerland and motherhood may have forced a change in direction but certainly did not stunt activity. She worked in radio, sang professionally with a gospel group with whom she still performs and was a backup singer for famous artistes in the ilk of Tom Jones and Meat Loaf when they launched new recordings in Zurich. She started singing jazz as well.
Despite Parkinson’s she still engages in this kind of activity: “I have just been forced to pace myself and do one thing at a time.”