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Iowan with Parkinson's stops in Iowa City on coast-to-coast bike trek

BY MADELINE SAVOIE | SEPTEMBER 04, 2012 6:30 AM

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ARich Mills left Iowa City in the dust Monday on his cross-country bike tour for Parkinson’s awareness.

In 2009, Mills, 58, of Winterset, Iowa, began a lifelong journey when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Despite the inevitable debilitating aspect of his diagnosis, he began another long journey this past summer — a one-man bike tour across the country, he calls, “Shakey Tracks, My Ride Across America with Parkinson’s.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it again,” he said.

Mill’s goals for the trip include raising awareness for Parkinson’s disease, raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Iowa Chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association, and getting signatures for a stem-cell petition he will present to the Congressional Caucus on Parkinson’s Disease in Washington, D.C., advocating for human embryonic stem-cell research.

According to the National Parkinson’s Association, the disease is a slowly progressing brain disorder that affects speech, movement, and balance.

Though he still has a ways to go, Mills said his tour has already met all of his goals, especially in sharing experiences with people he has met along the way.

According to the National Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 50,000 to 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, adding to the 1 million people previously diagnosed in the United States.

Because the disease is so complex, Mills said the scariest part of his diagnosis is the uncertainty of what is going to happen and wehen.

Mills said his diagnosis changed his perspective on life.

“The uncertainty is so unsettling for me,” he said. “In a way, I wish I knew when I would end up in a walker.”

Mills said the biking helps with back pains and relaxes a lot of the tremors as well as slows the progression of his disease, at least over the past year.

“I don’t think biking is a cure, but it keeps it at bay,” he said.

Ergun Uc, a University of Iowa associate professor of neurology, said despite the many research studies done, the exact benefits of exercise and what modalities, whether resistance or aerobic exercise, to use have not been fully established yet in the disease.

“While there are promising data from animal and epidemiological studies, there is no proof yet of exercise preventing or slowing down Parkinson’s disease,” Uc said. “Exercise may be helpful with certain symptoms, but it has to be safe and customized to the person’s abilities and needs.”

Uc emphasized that there is no standard exercise regime to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms, and people must consult with their doctor for safety and tailoring of their routine.

“The progression of Parkinson’s disease varies greatly among people,” said UI neurology Professor Robert Rodnitzky, the director of the Movement Disorders Division.

Rodnitzky said it’s hard to predict the exact prognosis for each individual, but Mill’s ability to bike cross-country is not an absurd concept this early on.

“He is relatively young; I’m not surprised that he is able to do this,” Uc said.

Two different groups have assisted Mills while on his journey, the American Parkinson’s Association and Warm Showers, a hospitality community for bike enthusiasts.

He said the host families from both groups have been understanding of his symptoms and supportive of his journey.

Wife Mayumi Ameku says although she worries if she does not get a call right away in the evening, she supports his journey completely.

“I’m very proud of my husband,” she said. “It’s amazing what he can achieve.”

Mills began his trip at the beginning of August and rides about six hours daily, though he often trails off of his prepared path.

“I’ve been known to wander,” Mills said. “If there’s the worlds largest popcorn ball just north of me, I’ll go to see it.”


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