Tigers great going to bat against his biggest opponent: Parkinson’s disease

Gala to raise money, awareness for this neurological disorder

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published October 8, 2019

 Former Detroit Tiger Kirk Gibson, pictured on the field at Comerica Park, is now committed to raising money and awareness for Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015.

Former Detroit Tiger Kirk Gibson, pictured on the field at Comerica Park, is now committed to raising money and awareness for Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015.

Photo provided by the Kirk Gibson Foundation for Parkinson’s and the Michigan Parkinson Foundation

 Baseball great Kirk Gibson, seen here in his Detroit Tigers uniform, was a member of the 1984 team that won the World Series.

Baseball great Kirk Gibson, seen here in his Detroit Tigers uniform, was a member of the 1984 team that won the World Series.

Photo provided by the Kirk Gibson Foundation for Parkinson’s and the Michigan Parkinson Foundation

METRO DETROIT — For an elite athlete like baseball legend Kirk Gibson, injuries and aches come with the job, but the problems he started experiencing around 2007 were different.

His left hand began to clutch one day when he was shaving. His left arm seemed to be stuck in place at his side. He experienced pain and stiffness in his neck and shoulder.

Gibson, who won World Series titles as a member of the Detroit Tigers in 1984 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, assumed years of athletic competition were taking their toll, but when he found himself unable to speak during a 2015 television event, he knew something else was going on. In April 2015, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“I had it for some time before (the diagnosis),” said Gibson, 62, a former resident of the Grosse Pointes who now lives in Oakland County. “You don’t think you have a neurological disease like that.”

Gibson has taken the passion he had for sports and is now channeling it into finding a cure for Parkinson’s, which the Michigan Parkinson Foundation defines as “a progressive neurodegenerative disorder resulting from the loss of nerve cells in a specific region of the brain.” The disease causes movement problems such as tremors, rigidity, and impaired coordination and balance, among other symptoms.

The Kirk Gibson Foundation for Parkinson’s is organizing the Everybody vs. Parkinson Gala — set for Oct. 19 at the MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit — to raise money for the Michigan Parkinson’s Foundation and the Kirk Gibson Foundation for Parkinson’s. Presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the event will include a VIP cocktail reception, a strolling dinner, live entertainment, live and silent auctions, and more.

Besides raising funds for research and support programs for patients, organizers hope to increase awareness of this disease, which affects 30,000 people in Michigan alone.

“I would argue many more have it and are in denial,” said Gibson, noting that more than 1 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s — a number that’s projected to double within the next 15 years.

Gibson went public with his diagnosis because he wanted to encourage others to seek advice and treatment.

“I just thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Having a nurse navigator to help direct patients to the right doctors and proper medications, as well as explain how to use medical insurance to cover treatment, is critical. Therapy programs like Big and Loud can also make a positive difference.

“You just have to learn how to operate with Parkinson’s disease,” Gibson said. “You have a new normal. We (at the foundation) help people come to grips with it. Activity helps, diet helps, sleeping helps.”

Although there’s no cure for Parkinson’s, Gibson said maintaining a healthy lifestyle improves quality of life.

Earlier this year, Gibson’s foundation entered into a partnership with the Michigan Parkinson Foundation and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to raise awareness and fund research.

Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, is the executive co-chair of the Everybody vs. Parkinson’s Gala with his wife, Amy. Dan Loepp’s father, Robert, died of complications from Parkinson’s five years ago.

“Amy and I are proud to support these two extraordinary foundations and bring awareness to Parkinson’s, a devastating disease that has impacted so many families, including mine,” Loepp said in a press release.

Early diagnosis and treatment are believed to delay the progression of symptoms.

“It’s not a death sentence, but it is pretty wicked and insidious,” Gibson said of the disease that has changed his life and the lives of so many others.

Jeff Laethem, of Grosse Pointe Shores, runs the auto dealerships that his father, Ray Laethem, founded. Parkinson’s disease is personal for Jeff Laethem — it claimed his father in 2010, when he was only 61. Ray Laethem was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s in his early 40s, his son said.

“It was very tough for a guy who was always in control of everything,” Laethem said of his father. “It was a living hell for him. And I got to see it from a caregiver’s (perspective).”

Parkinson’s disease symptoms vary from one patient to the next.

“If you’ve seen one Parkinson’s patient, you’ve seen one Parkinson’s patient,” Laethem said. “(My father) had a lot of rigidity. He described it like trying to walk through a pool of molasses.”

His father also had dementia, which Laethem said isn’t uncommon.  

“It was difficult to manage, not only from a physical standpoint, but also from an emotional standpoint,” he said.

Laethem, who chairs the Michigan Parkinson Foundation Board, urged the caregivers of those with Parkinson’s to join a support group, where they can talk about their experiences and learn from others. He said it was at such a group that he discovered that touching his dad’s elbow would allow him to move when he froze up.

There are also speech therapy and boxing programs and more for Parkinson’s patients.

“Those sort of keep you limber and keep your mind moving,” Laethem said.

Laethem wants people to recognize the symptoms of Parkinson’s earlier so they can start managing the disease as soon as possible. Getting exercise in the early stages, for example, might slow the progression of symptoms. For his father, Laethem said “that could have made a big difference.”

“We’re here to help steer (patients) and make the transition to your new normal as least difficult as possible,” Gibson said. “You can still be productive and you can still fit in” with this disease.

For tickets to Everybody vs. Parkinson’s or to make a donation, visit www.evsp.org or mail a contribution to Everybody vs. Parkinson’s, 19798 Mack Ave., Grosse Pointe Woods, MI 48236. For more information about Parkinson’s, visit www.parkinsonsmi.org or www.kirkgibsonfoundation.org.