DMU physical therapy students walk, dance to help Parkinson’s patients

Every nine minutes, someone is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This chronic, progressive type of movement disorder affects an estimated one million Americans and more than 10 million people worldwide. It can affect a person’s ability to perform common, daily activities. There is no cure – but the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA), its Iowa chapter and a group of DMU physical therapy students are working to change that.

These DMU physical therapy students raised funds and volunteered at a walk to support the fight against Parkinson’s disease.

On Sept. 29, more than 30 physical therapy students joined APDA-Iowa and On With Life, an Ankeny, IA-based nonprofit brain injury rehabilitation organization, for the National Optimism Walk Day. These “DMU Striders” raised $1,000 to be used by the Iowa chapter for local education and support for those touched by Parkinson’s disease as well as scientific research into the causes, prevention, treatments and ultimately a cure for the disease.

Individuals can still make donations to this cause via the DMU Striders’ webpage.

“The walk event was incredible! I was blown away by the amazing set-up and the large turnout for such a cold day,” says Morgan Ley, a first-year physical therapy student. “The total money raised tallied almost $44,000. A lot of walkers had custom T-shirts or name tags representing who they were walking for, and I found this really powerful to see how many lives Parkinson’s has touched.”

The walk is not the only way Morgan and other students serve Parkinson’s patients. In recent years, students from DMU’s four clinical programs have devoted one night a week join people with the disease for dancing, chair exercises and other movement activities. Why?

“There is solid scientific evidence indicating that music and dance can get people with Parkinson’s disease moving better and improve their quality of life,” says Carolyn Weber, a third-year physical therapy student who has led part of the dance sessions. “Parkinson’s disease impairs parts of the brain that control the selection of movement patterns needed for everyday activities that most of us take for granted, like walking. But music enters the brain via pathways that are not impaired by the disease and serves as an important signal to the brain to initiate movement patterns. In other words, music allows us to kind of hack into the brain. And with repeated hacking, people with Parkinson’s can get better at moving.”

The benefits go far beyond the physical.

Participants in a recent dance-and-movement session at DMU

“There is often a negative connotation that comes along with the disease since it comes with some pretty debilitating symptoms that often intimidates the general population,” Morgan says. “This can lead to self-esteem issues, and even depression, if the individual becomes ashamed of the disease and isolates themselves from others. I think that is exactly what the Parkinson’s dance class and the Optimism Walk aim to end. The dance class is a safe place where Parkinson’s patients can come once a week for an hour, let their guard down and engage in both a social and physical interaction, both of which has been shown to significantly help symptoms.

“This is a population that I enjoying working with, so I was very excited by all the different opportunities that DMU has to offer involving the Parkinson’s community,” she adds.