HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC It’s an odd scene.
A shaky 74-year-old raises his black leather boxing gloves to a mountain of a man whose bulging muscles stretch the name on his T-shirt: Riptide Mixed Martial Arts.
You might call it Riptide vs. the Trickle.
Never miss a local story.
But you also might call it a miracle.
And you might be surprised at who’s winning the fight.
The old man is Walt Dembiec of Hilton Head Island. He has Parkinson’s disease, the one that slowly sucks the strength and coordination out of your body. It left Walt creeping around the neighborhood on a walker.
That was two months ago. Now he is kickboxing.
To hear his wife, Karen, describe it, Walt floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee when before he could barely lift himself out of bed.
It was eight weeks ago that Karen read a story in The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette about a nonprofit program from Indiana called Rock Steady Boxing.
“We are learning every day that there are ways in which people with Parkinson’s disease can enhance their daily quality of life and even build impressive power, strength, flexibility and speed,” says the program’s website. “By exercising with coaches who know the ropes, you can fight your way out of the corner and start to feel and function better.”
Karen jumped online, but found no local Rock Steady affiliates. She then called every gym in the Yellow Pages, and John Juarez of Riptide MMA in Bluffton called her back. The concept of training a Parkinson’s patient was new to him. He has not been certified or trained with Rock Steady, which was featured earlier this month on the CBS “Sunday Morning” show with Lesley Stahl and her husband with Parkinson’s.
Walt and John began working out one-on-one.
Last week, when I went to see it, they said it was a miracle when Walt lifted one leg to touch a punching bag without falling over. He carries weighted sand bags and a large ball during the 30-minute workout. He exercises. He hits a speed bag. He walks. He laughs. He is energized.
Between workouts, Walt has started helping around the house and reading more.
“It’s amazing,” Juarez said. “There’s some kind of connection with the mind and muscle that releases more chemicals, more testosterone. We were made to fight.”
Walt says in a voice almost silenced by the disease: “You can get your aggressions out.”
Karen said, “I would have never thought I’d see him do these things. He just feels so much better about himself.”
LAUGHING AND CRYING
Walt is in Stage 4 of Parkinson’s five stages.
That’s a long way down a frustrating road from the day 15 years ago his internist Dr. Patricia North asked, “How long have you had that little tremor?”
“It’s such a horrible disease,” Karen said. “It’s so sad. You know what’s coming.”
It might help that Walt had always been kind of athletic, playing baseball for his high school team in Somerville, N.J. Before retiring at age 54, he ran data centers supporting AT&T’s payroll and purchase order divisions when a PC took up a whole floor.
On Hilton Head, he rode a bike and played golf. He went to nine holes when he lost stamina. And he had to ask his golfing partners to put the ball on the tee for him unless they wanted the round to last all day.
Eventually, his legs would feel like dead weight. They moved to The Preserve at Indigo Run so there’s no yard work. They put in bed railings to help Walt get up and installed a raised toilet.
He has taken different drugs under the care of Dr. Vanessa Hinson at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. He meets another man with Parkinson’s for breakfast once a week. He has been to programs at Memory Matters. Someone takes him out every Wednesday afternoon to a movie or a mall.
They tried yoga, but it wasn’t for Walt.
Another option here is the Dance For Joy program offered through the network of Parkinson’s support groups.
But Adrienne O’Neill, who has been a local and statewide Parkinson’s support group leader, said it’s hard to get men up and involved. She’s interested in the kickboxing and plans to try it herself.
Karen said this is the first type of exercise Walt has enjoyed since Parkinson’s put its clamp on his body. She bought him a boxing speed bag for Christmas but has already given it to him.
Her goal is to keep him involved, hoping it will slow the oppressive decline to Parkinson’s.
And she wants more people to join Walt at the gym. If more people participated, perhaps the cost per session could be reduced. Perhaps they could feed off each other, she said.
For now, she sits in the lobby with her eternal smile while the odd couple works out in the Riptide gym. She hears her husband laughing with a trainer she calls a gentle giant.
“It makes me want to cry,” she said.