What then must we do?

Last week I attended the world Parkinson’s Congress (WPC) in Barcelona. These meetings in general inspire me but this one particularly so. In the past my response has typically been to increase my output in my regular job. That applied when I had a job. But for the last few years I have been functionally and spiritually perhaps in retirement. This particular WPC meeting has lit a fire. But how should I respond to this fire? What is an appropriate means? As was adequately discussed at the recent WPC, there are many different ways of helping and many of those would be considered to be advocacy in one form or another.

I have been an advocate in one form or another for much of the last decade and perhaps a little beyond. I was one of the cofounders of the late PARKINSON’S MOVEMENT, this organisation representative of its time but now largely part of the fossil record, swept away by PD Avengers. I jointly founded a group entitled PARKINSON’S INSIDE OUT, a think tank of specialists all of whom had Parkinson’s. A good, if short lived idea. I made a series of videos with Eros Bresolin, PARKINSON’S MOVEMENT WEBINARS or pod casts before such terms were bandied about. I made another darker set of videos entitled THE DARK SIDE OF PARKINSON’S, with prize-winning cinematographer Anders Leines, addressing some of the more taboo subjects within Parkinson’s. Well received critically but still awaiting funding to produce a second series. And I’ve recorded or been recorded a number of Interviews on matters parkinsonian. I have published a half-dozen or so papers on patient -related research in addition to my papers and reviews in my former life in the laboratory. And I have written, for many years now, a blog, at least in part relating parkinsonian matters. These, in turn, have formed the backbone of the book series entitled SLICE OF LIFE.

Okay, I haven’t found a cure for Parkinson’s yet and, no longer working in the laboratory context, am unlikely to. But I have been a member of several patient advisory panels on new therapeutics, and so on. I also review papers as well for various journals and I’m on the editorial board for a couple of them. So I’ve not been idle! I can do stuff. I’m still, in part at least a scientist
This reads a bit like my curriculum vitae or résumé. I suppose in a manner of speaking it is. Because I’m presenting myself here to you and I want you to help me to help you. Does that make sense?
I want to help, I really do. And I’m emerging from a comfortable retirement to throw myself again into advocacy in some form.
But what form? I don’t know yet but it seems to me that it must be somewhere where I can make a difference. Somewhere that plays to my strengths. Although I can rattle a tin as well as the best of them, I don’t think this is my best use. Okay, what is?

Let’s be honest – you saw this coming, right? My reflexes are a little slow these days and I will doubtless have some ring rust to clear before I’m able to be helpful. So let’s step forward. I would like to ask you to tell me where you think I can best help. For instance there are some examples:

1) write a major book on Parkinson’s, for a patient audience or wider. You tell me.
2) audiovisual aids on Parkinson’s?
3) a major motion picture? Featuring Mel Gibson as me.
4) a newspaper column detailing the day-to-day vicissitudes of Parkinson’s
5) making a nuisance of myself in a laboratory again
6) helping people without experience to write high quality grant applications.

These are just a few ideas of the top of my head. I’d be perfectly happy if you weren’t interested in any of these but have other plans that I could help you execute. To return to what I said above briefly, whatever I do has to be impactful and effective or I might just as well go back to watching afternoon television. So think of it as a mercy mission, saving me from endless reruns of Supermarket Sweep.

So please email me with your ideas to re-purpose me! The email address below should be obvious but I have quoted it in this form simply to avoid being auto-spammed by Filipino brides, llama sanctuaries and dodgy stem cell vendors.

j underscore a underscore stamford at yahoo dot co dot u k. If you read it aloud it makes sense

“What then must we do?” Asked Tolstoy in his book of the same name.

You tell me.

Advocacy and caring

Who is an advocate? Is it the middle-aged man, at the height of his professional career, on the stage talking in stark, certain terms of Parkinson’s and all its ramifications? Is it the older woman, standing outside the railway station shivering in the rain, while rattling her collection tin for her daughter? Is it the initially reluctant teenager, going door-to-door with literature and collection tins, trying to square his own actions with his conscience pricked by his shaky granny?

Are these advocates? Do they tick the boxes? Do they increase awareness? Do they support research? Do they help relieve the burden of people with Parkinson’s and their carers? Let me ask you again – who is an advocate? In their own small way each is an advocate. But also none. Because until you understand Parkinson’s, you will always be a surrogate. As a good, now sadly more distant, friend of mine once said “if you haven’t got it, you don’t get it”.

Do I sound ungrateful? Yes, I suspect I do. The man on the stage, the shivering rainsoaked woman and the teenager in his hoodie are all vital cogs in the machinery. Raise money for research because without it, there will be none. No research means no treatment or cure. It means that we will have to explain to our children why people still suffer from a condition we have known for more than 200 years. We will have to say that we did not do enough. And we did not do enough because we did not care enough.

And why did we not care enough? Because, when you bring Parkinson’s home and personalise it, it’s unappealing. It’s granny, fixed expression on her face, dribbling her soup down her smock hearing nothing and contributing as much. Why? Because nobody thought to check the batteries in her hearing aid. It’s the smelly old man in the corner of the nursing home playing solitaire with his pack of cards and quietly sobbing. His daughter no longer visits, declining to change his pads and robbing him of those last shreds of dignity.

Advocacy is easy. And we, the delegates at the 6th World Parkinson’s Congress are a world removed from these dark spaces. While we drink sangria over tapas, renew old friendships and listen to the latest thinking, it’s easy to believe that Parkinson’s is a pussycat and not the ravening beast clawing at our very being. Yes, Parkinson’s is congresses, science and learning. These are still essentials. But let us not forget those other darker realities. Because these are as much a truth as any other.

Spare a thought, amid the hubbub, for those who are not with us in Barcelona. Let’s make a point of remembering why we are here in that great Catalan capital. We are here for one reason only – to alleviate suffering and hasten an end to this pestilence. Remember granny, talk to Granddad, help all.

Leave the conference brimming full of ideas. Ideas that will help expedite the end of Parkinson’s. Think of all those things that could reduce suffering and improve quality of life. Because the reality for many is a quality of life so blighted as to be barely a life at all. And do it with the others firmly in mind.

Never let it again be said that we did not care enough. Never.

World Parkinson’s Day 2023

You would think by now that I had got used to it. You It comes around each year and I still find myself struggling to find exactly the right combination of words to express my feelings. I’m talking of course about World Parkinson’s Day when we parkies strut our stuff (if that’s the right word) for the nonparky population. Each time we try to offer a new angle on the condition, perhaps hint at new treatments that, in their own little way, may help to relieve the symptomatic burden of the condition or even point towards a slowing of progression. But how do we square the circle? How do we persuade the general public, unaware of the conditions many facets, to part with their hard earned money in order to increase or speed up research.
We paint a picture of the condition at its worst – quivering, frozen, half sentient ghosts, their minds lost to impenetrable memories. We paint a picture of blank stares, of barely recognisable expression, of hollowed out shells of people. God’s waiting room.

But there is another side to this coin. The newly diagnosed. People not yet experiencing the condition in all its pomp. People just starting that journey – a tiny tremor here, a little muscle cramp there. Slowing but not yet to stand still. We are so sensitive to those starting their journey that we are at pains to point to a gentler, softer version of that same condition where it is possible to live meaningful and happy lives after diagnosis. That Parkinson’s is a paper tiger. We can live with it for years and years, each subsequent year representing a minor detriment in functionality. A gradual decline into nothingness.

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2006. 17 years ago as near as makes no odds. I have learnt much over the years about this condition and its effects. Yes, in the majority of cases you can live with this illness. You can pick over the wreckage and construct meaningful lives amid the devastation. And yes, it is a life reduced, a life in abeyance to this neurological scourge.

Above all I have learnt that people with Parkinson’s clutch at straws. We deceive ourselves in order to live. We tell each other lies to get ourselves through the day. For many years I was a scientist and scientists thrive on truth, honesty and integrity. When I became a patient I found myself consciously putting the gods of truth and honesty to the back of my mind and telling people what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed. I lost sight of the horizon of truth amid the mire of falsehoods. I was complicit in this nonsense. I would tell the newly diagnosed that they would be just fine. I substituted hope where I should have spoken the truth.

But hope is surely our only positive I hear you say. Without hope we are lost. I would disagree. We are certainly a different place. Hope has two sides and you flip the coin accordingly. The other side of the coin is hype. The building of false hopes by vested interests. Miracle cures, stem cell parodies and so on. In my opinion I would rather have no hope have my inflated hopes dashed. Follow the science, keep a sense of perspective. Hope if you must. But don’t invest your hope. The stock market of hopes is a dangerous place.

You may take exception to my conclusion if you wish. But I believe firmly that a grasp of the science is important. Read, learn, distinguish between real science and pseudoscience. If it looks too good to be true it almost certainly is.

There will be a cure for Parkinson’s. Of that I am sure. But don’t ask me to put a five year timeframe on that. Only marketing executives and junior doctors too inexperienced to know better. You wouldn’t necessarily want these guys messing with your dopamine. Stick to the science because that’s where salvation will come from.

Dad’s back.

April is World Parkinson’s Month, in which we (people with Parkinson’s) try to raise awareness amongst the general population, the month in which we try to share our experiences to help you understand why we do what we do and why we are what we are.

Briefly, Parkinson’s is an incurable neurodegenerative illness affecting movement and a whole bundle of other physiology. That means it’s going to affect every part of body functioning, it’s going to get worse and there is nothing you can do to prevent that.

These facts are usually presented to patients along with their diagnosis. That’s a lot to take in, a lot to absorb in that brief consultation with your neurologist. It is commonly said that patients die with rather than of Parkinson’s. That’s not strictly true. Life expectancy is shorter with Parkinson’s, the extent to which it is shortened being determined by age of onset and symptom cluster. On the whole, you get about 16 years post diagnosis. And, without wishing to belabour the point, those 16 years will not probably be as much fun as they would otherwise have been.

That sounds, on the face of it, a grim proposition, with little in the way of prospects. That’s not entirely the case. Sure, it is degenerative and incurable. But it is possible nonetheless to slow the disease progression. Careful attention to diet, exercise and medication routine (yes, all the boring bits) can change the clinical picture substantially. Okay we can’t stop it in its tracks but we can slow down this symptomatic behemoth. Parkinson’s is all about time, about buying time. Buying time until a cure is found.

Around 18 months ago, my 16 years were up. I was, if you will, on borrowed time. We (that’s me, my neurologist, my Parkinson’s nurse and my family) had to make a decision. We could let nature take its course or force its hand. And after 16 years of Parkinson’s, you don’t have too many cards left to play.

My choices boiled down fundamentally to one – DBS. DBS stands for Deep Brain Stimulation and, when you know what it entails, you can see why it is always referred to by the acronym. In this procedure, thin wire electrodes are implanted deep below the surface of the brain (around about 2 inches) into, mostly, the subthalamic nucleus. Once in place, tiny pulses of electrical current reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s, some more than others.
Not a decision to take lightly. For many in the early stages of Parkinson’s, it is a bridge too far, a Rubicon most will not choose. After 16 years of symptoms, the situation is different. You can no longer hide. In my case, the choice was simple. I could either continue down the same largely certain path of neurodegeneration or I could take a stand. I could buy myself time.

DBS is not a cure. Let’s be clear on that. It buys you time, nothing more. Time to enjoy life, to help other people with Parkinson’s, to watch my children fulfil their potential, to become the people their best selves. All these things and more. Is it all a bed of roses? No. A small proportion of patients get no benefits from the procedure. Some (thankfully few) get worse. A tiny minority even pay for it with their lives, suffering a stroke as the electrodes penetrate deep into the brain. But for the large majority, it helps.

My surgery was conducted at the beginning of November 2021, at the height of the Covid pandemic. No visitors were allowed. There was no one to hold my hand, figuratively or otherwise.

My electrodes were switched on on 5 November, fireworks night in so many ways! The benefit was instant. Not huge but noticeable. My walking was better, my tremor largely absent and my balance reasonable. I took videos of myself walking up and down the ward and showed them to my children. My daughter burst into tears. “I can’t remember seeing you looking so well” she said, in one sentence justifying the entire procedure.

What more can I say? Dad’s back.

Blog and be damned!

Today’s blog is about, well, blogs. When I say blog, I am referring in this context at least to Parkinson’s related blogs. My own blog (www.jonstamford.com) could I suppose broadly be considered a Parkinson’s blog in the sense that its origins lie there even if it’s present format has somewhat drifted from its origins. But in the sense that it also distils my ethos about Parkinson’s, albeit infrequently, it should probably be considered within the broad envelope of this discussion.

I should also say that although I may refer to other bloggers and their approaches to blogging, I will not generally name names. This is not for any fear of lawyers (liticophobia?) but a desire not to needlessly hurt their feelings. Without also sinking into the mire of woke consciousness, be aware that I may also change their gender if I feel their identity is still too obvious.

I asked my eldest the other day about when I had started blogging. “Roundabout the late Cretaceous period” was her response. Evidently I am a true dinosaur. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well. But after a little bit of verbal jousting, we agreed it was around about 2010. Having been diagnosed in 2006, I had some four years of experience to draw upon. And draw upon it I did, originally in a blog on the Wobbly Williams website, moving in the following year I think to my own free website and then later still on to a proper grown-up website where I could throw in all sorts of other dimensions – music, photography, video, blah blah blah.

Why did I start a blog? Well, it was largely the result of facing a very persuasive Bryn Williams, he being of a  wobbly nature (oh gosh I didn’t really disguise his identity did I?). Bryn is of course a lawyer and, by nature, extremely persuasive. After a brief session talking to him or, in actual fact, submitting to his hyperbole and flattery of my writing skills, I was persuaded that the world needed to hear from me. I don’t suppose for one second that it actually did but it was fun while it lasted. And Bryn has always been a beacon for many in the Parkinson world (am I returning the flattery here? It looks like it doesn’t it).

At first I simply wrote about my day-to-day experiences and how Parkinson’s had pulled the rug from under them. After a while I began to receive emails and letters even from people who generally said they enjoyed reading my thoughts and admired the positivity. I was seen in some ways as making light of the condition, and not submitting willingly to its many vicissitudes. And I think also because my background was science, specifically neuroscience and most specifically Parkinson’s, I was perhaps seen as a “go to” person if you wanted a bit of science scattered around your symptoms.

Even the most cursory examination of the blogosphere reveals the many different styles, objectives and execution. One, by a friend in Hungary let’s say, is irrepressibly optimistic, finding laughter and humour in the most insane moments. Another is a devout believer in the church of laughter, happy to cite scientific research that “proves” laughter, even the very physical act of laughing, is enough to alleviate dyskinesias. I can’t help feeling it’s not that simple. Rats don’t laugh much and they don’t get Parkinson’s. Hyenas might be a better model. Especially so for scientists with a death wish. My feeling is that hyenas would be Benny Hill fans rather than appreciating more Pythonesque humour. But laughter is just an exemplar. We all have something, some little trick of the light that benefits us and us alone. This of course is the “n of 1” trial approach. But that’s another subject for another day, beyond the scope of this blog.

Leaving aside the scientific tonality or otherwise of each blog, the principal differentiator is positivity or negativity. What is appropriate?

This is the elephant in the room and, in many ways, also the conundrum with which we wrestle daily. We need money for research into treatments for Parkinson’s. That’s obvious. It’s also obvious that we will raise much more money if we portray the condition at its most horrible, crippling and gruesome.

At the same time, we are keen, as a community, and especially for the management of newbies, to convey the message that you can live with this condition and live a fulfilling life. perhaps not your pre-diagnosis definition of “fulfilling” but nonetheless worthwhile. How do we protect them whilst flipping the coin over reveals a much uglier head. I’ve been blogging for a dozen years and still haven’t found the answer to that one. Answers on a postcard please.

I have a good friend in Andorra (could be, although the odds are against it) who is a Whack-a-Mole champion in his country. He is a strong advocate for single sport activity as a means of ensuring good long-term outcomes. Specifically Whack-a-Mole .

A couple of years back the inspirational Norwegian filmmaker Anders Leines and I made a short series of small videos about subjects we felt were difficult to tackle and poorly addressed by our physicians. Poorly explained by them and poorly understood by us. Essentially the direct result of embarrassment on both parties I suspect. We called this series The Dark Side of Parkinson’s. We opened up a message board. The messages we received were very largely positive towards the videos in the sense that we had apparently burst a dam, along the lines of “I’m not the only one then who suffers from this” and “now I feel I can discuss it with my doctor.”

We agonised over whether we should publish or withhold the videos. Would they do more harm than good? Were they balanced? In the end, we had to make a very stark choice. We chose to publish, with each video carrying a reference where further information could be sought.

The responses, as I said, were extremely positive about content. That’s not to say that support was universal. There were certainly some who felt we had done a disservice to the community. I don’t agree necessarily but I do certainly endorse their right to an opinion on the matter.

I probably take, especially these days, what I would consider to be a more realistic appraisal although I happily concede that my “realistic” may map very closely to someone else’s “pessimistic”. My own feeling is that it is easier to justify blind optimism than more downbeat tones. We don’t seem to have to justify happiness as much as despondency.

And there is of course also the issue of readability. From my own experience, although I vouch for the gritty realism of my own approach, I still find that persistently negative blogs do not, unless very well written (such as that by a fellow academic with connections to the low countries) hold my attention.

If I had to summarise, I have reservations about relentless positivity, like a rictus smile. It just doesn’t ring true and obviously even less so as time passes. It takes a very particular skillset to maintain such a façade. The most positive blogs are typically written by patients within the first few years of diagnosis, that phoney war where the drugs seem to work and we delude ourselves that we are somehow different and we can handle it.


The progression of Parkinson’s is hard to arrest and even harder to reverse. Painting rosy pictures of Parkinson’s patients playing racket sports and the like does not help. In fact I feel that setting impossible standards is counter-productive. It can induce a sense of failure. Very few Parkies can run marathons, swim triathlons and so on. Mostly we shuffle to the shops. It is difficult to achieve the right tone in such blogs. Achievement creates respect up to a point. Beyond that point it starts to reek of triumphalism, simultaneously crashing the spirit. For the most part I’m sure it’s unintentional and has been one or two heroes, making their handicaps a source of inspiration. But for others it’s the desperation such efforts can invoke that worries me.

Dismiss it if you will. I am no athlete and you could legitimately decry my observations as the ramblings of a sofa dweller. Perhaps you’re right and my more balanced appraisal (read pessimistic if you wish) is the one to avoid. Patients will work things out for themselves in the fullness of time. Some need more help than others. For some patients, a sharp dose of reality will derail the train. . But in the end the journey will always have rocky elements and it will be hard to hold the line if you don’t have the mental resources to do so. Listen to fellow patients, absorb their experience and prepare your own to help you best equip for the journey. Engage with your Parkinson’s because, as sure as night follows day, it is going to engage with you.

My own feeling, and perhaps it’s the scientist in me still, is that the greater breadth of information available to the patient facilitates more poised and reasoned decision making during the course of the illness. And yes, there will be a lot of that. Decisions, that is.

Start making them now.

DBS Diary 02: Rolling the dice

Yesterday was the big day. Well, technically, one of a number of big days. But, in this case, the day upon which all other days rest. The day I met the hospital’s multidisciplinary DBS team and they had a chance to meet me. Four of them, two of us (my younger daughter came to assist) and a nominal three quarters of an hour to answer some pretty big questions. Put like that it begins to look like speed dating. Except for the fact that several of them wanted to stick electrodes in my brain. Not there and then you understand but at some point.

I was expecting a sales pitch in essence. I was expecting to be bowled over by hyperbole and misplaced enthusiasm. I could not have been more wrong. We talked about realistic expectations, about side-effects, about benefits and so on. And all in the most sober down-to-earth manner. They did not try to “sell” me on the idea of DBS. Throughout the consultation they emphasised that it was my decision and mine alone whether to go ahead but that, in their view, I met the criteria for DBS. The ball was in my court.

But the thing that impressed me most was their willingness to bandy numbers with me. Now, as you know, I am a grizzled old neuroscientist, strong on statistics, light on fluffy feelings. Like so many scientists, I am unmoved by “very rare” or “relatively common” or “in a proportion of cases”. One man’s “very rare” is another man’s “not at all” or “rare but not unknown”. It reminds you the old Woody Allen joke about the man and his wife separately seeing their shrink and answering the question “how often do you have sex?” with “hardly at all – maybe three times a week” and “constantly – maybe three times a week”. Well it made me laugh. But my point is that descriptors provide nuance but not detail.

Start using numbers and it’s a different matter. The moment you start saying “one in 30”, “62%” and “11/19”, you have my undivided attention. I understand numbers. Numbers are the language of science. My PhD supervisor and good friend Zyg had a very simple maxim – “if you can’t describe it in numbers, it’s not science”. Although I might quibble over the minor details, it nonetheless carries weight as a general rule. And so it was yesterday. They spoke to me in numbers, instantly setting me at ease.

In the end, DBS surgery inevitably presents risks. They explained them to me in numbers – my likelihood of dying, of being seriously damaged, of minor complications, and all the perioperative niggles. And they gave me the numbers for improvements in tremor, movement, stiffness and so on. And they told me all the things that DBS would not help such as balance, even gait to some extent. Each number was presented neutrally, with no change in expression to indicate personal views although, in fairness, the facemasks probably eliminated all nuances of expression anyway. Itwas all a case of deciding where the risk-benefit fulcrum lay and totting up the numbers.

My daughter and I were a good double-team. I would pitch in with the question, then she. We alternated, each presenting a different facet of our collective anxieties. And one by one they answered each to our satisfaction.

Perhaps the most personally satisfying moment occurred when I expressed my reservations about the likelihood of achieving the kind of results found in younger PD patients since I’m 63. The surgeon, with a smile I could see behind his mask, said it’s not a case of chronological but functional age and he had seen my MRI scans and was satisfied that this was a good brain without evidence of atrophy. In essence the cranial cavity was filled with brain rather than cerebrospinal fluid. Good to know. And fingers crossed of course.

All other things being equal, they felt I was a good candidate and were happy to operate with one proviso which I’ll cover in the next blog. The whole tenor of the discussion was positive and engaging. Once I had DBS done, I was part of their family forever. It was more than just a surgeon/neurologist speaking to a patient. They would look after me. It was warming.

Their final words to us, as we left, were that we did not have to make a decision on the spot. We should take some time, reflect upon it and then let them know the answer.

My daughter and I headed to a nearby coffee house to regroup and discuss what we had heard. Nothing is of course without risk. Would I considered this procedure 10 years ago? Obviously not. And I know for a fact that I didn’t even entertain the idea, so determined was I to fight the illness in my own way. But time brings a degree of maturity and understanding. We throw away the foolish fancies of youth and make sober judgements where once we would have dismissed with flippancy. But back then I needed DBS like a hole in the head (I’m sorry, I couldn’t stop myself).

Now I recognise it for what it is. Part of the modern armoury in the treatment of PD. Who knows, it may one day be a condition remedied entirely by surgery. Wouldn’t that be funny. True the procedure is mediaeval, barbaric even. Liked trephining, practised in Paleolithic times. Maybe they had DBS 3000 years before Christ. (No, don’t rush to Wikipedia). It’s not a serious suggestion.

Even for somebody who revels in numbers, it is quite sobering to apply them to one’s own predicament, to reduce one’s own future to a series of calculated risks and gambles. Rather like Douglas Adams’s computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, my future could be described by a relatively simple quadratic equation. The probability of this, the likelihood that, the risk of the other. All reducible to numbers. Yes, things could go horribly wrong. I might even die. It is technically possible but extremely unlikely. Much more likely is that it would go well and I would achieve at least some meaningful benefit for the next several years. It comes down to a balance of probabilities, nothing more nor less.

I caught the train home with the surgical team’s words echoing in my ears. It was my decision and my decision alone. “Take your time”. I didn’t need to.

It’s time to roll the dice.

DBS Diary 01: How I reached this point

DBS Diary 03: The hard yards