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Parkinson's blessing in disguise

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 10:47 am | Updated: 11:29 am, Fri Sep 30, 2011.

Her voice falters ever so slightly but her words are deliberate and gut-wrenchingly profound.

“My family is better off for my having Parkinson’s,” says Sheila Fitzgerald.

“The things they’ve learned. My older daughter with (studying to be a doctor in) naturopathic medicine. Another daughter determined to educate the world. A husband determined to teach photography and honor my son.

“I would prefer not to have it, but how could you want to give up something that has taught you so much?”

What she would have had to give up is shaking so hard that she once feared her hospital bed would roll over and crush her diminutive mother, who stood at her bedside holding her hand.

Or walking down the street only to find herself looking up at pitying passersby as she lay on the ground, not remembering how she fell.

Or crossing a parking lot that becomes as vast as a football field to muscles that are losing connection to the brain.

How could anybody be better off because Sheila Fitzgerald has Parkinson’s?

Gilbert and the East Valley will soon find out.

I met Sheila last Saturday evening at the grand opening of Art Intersection (artintersection.com) on the second floor of the Heritage Court building at 207 N. Gilbert Road.

Sheila and husband Allen Fitzgerald bought much of the second floor of the building from the proceeds of the sale of their Phoenix business. The technology business made drives for high-end users of an early form of flash memory.

They did all right for themselves and they’re setting about making the community better off. 

They’ve transformed the building’s second floor into His and Hers areas.

Alan has turned his part of the second floor into a photo arts gallery, laboratory, and gathering place for photographers who are looking to improve their art.

Today’s photo labs are dominated by Macintosh computers; yesterday’s, by sinks and chemicals and dark rooms.

You can find both labs at Art Intersection. You see, there are some things that the ones and zeroes of the digital world of today’s photography just can’t do, Alan Fitzgerald explained during a tour. An engineer and now a photo arts benefactor, he would know.

But you can find this out for yourself by taking in the exhibits in two gallery rooms that amount to more than 1,600 square feet.

You’ll learn what your point-and-shoot can’t do, and that yesterday’s photographic processes are alive, well, and relevant in the East Valley’s photographic arts community.

While visitors roamed through the galleries, Sheila Fitzgerald was nearby in what will become the Banner Neuro Wellness center.

The center is a joint undertaking of the Fitzgerald Family Foundation and Banner Health. Within weeks it will be a place where Parkinson’s survivors can go to exercise under a program specifically designed to repair their brains.

They will also be able to drum, meditate, go through classes, attend support group meetings and learn about nutrition. For more, see http://pwrgym.org

Why this, and why in Gilbert?

Sheila, 56 and a 19-year Parkinson’s survivor, said she just got tired of traveling into Phoenix for therapy three or four times a week.

Going to Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center “just got old.”

“Yet the therapy program worked so well” that she and Alan decided to bring it to Gilbert.

While she had a long-standing relationship with Banner, getting the bureaucracy to buy into and act on her vision wasn’t easy.

“Kicking and screaming over bringing it to the East Valley” is how she described the process.

“I want a place where neuro-patients can come and flop down on the couch and say ‘I’m having a crappy day’ or ‘I just fell and need a place to vent.’ ”

“OK, so you fell. Do you want to exercise? We have all of these programs that will help you carry on,” Sheila said, carrying on an imaginary dialogue. 

What will it cost?

That hasn’t been decided, she said.

“I suspect there will be something like a $25 per month charge. It will be nominal. No one will be turned away.”

At first the Fitzgeralds’ projects seemed an unlikely combination, but they are rooted in the same soil.

The Fitzgeralds’ son, Ryan, had studied photography at Northern Arizona University. Through him, Alan Fitzgerald developed an interest in photography and photographic processes.

From her son, Sheila Fitzgerald learned to give back.

One day when Ryan and Sheila were in a car together, he asked her what she would do if money was not an object.

She gave a flip answer. He frowned and gave a serious one.

“I would want to buy medicine for Parkinson’s patients,” he told his mom.

About 10 years ago Ryan went home one night, sat on the floor, stretched his legs out and died. An undiagnosed malformed artery gave out. Allen found his son’s body.

Today, they are left with more than memories. They are able to feature one of his last pictures — a photo of Sheila dancing in triumph — in the Banner Neuro Wellness center brochure.

The picture was taken after Sheila had undergone deep brain stimulation surgery right after the Federal Drug Administration had approved the procedure.

She taught herself to walk again. So well that on a sunny day in Flagstaff, Sheila swirled her skirt in joy and Ryan captured the moment.

After the sale of their company, the Fitzgeralds approached Banner with a proposal to set up a program to help needy Parkinson’s survivors get help in paying for costly drugs.

Drug companies and pharmacies would be approached to make a donation. If all avenues were exhausted, the Fitzgeralds would step up to the plate.

Last Christmas, Sheila said she received from Banner an origami garland of doves and on each dove was the name of a person they had helped through their medications assistance program. There were about 300 names of people who are better off because Sheila Fitzgerald has Parkinson’s disease.

And when the Banner Neuro Wellness center opens, there will be a whole lot more.

Author’s disclosure: My father in law, David F. Gray, was not a Parkinson’s survivor. He died on Sept. 8, 2007.

• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com

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