‘You need teamwork’

Detroit Tigers legend Kirk Gibson wants to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease and push for a cure.

How does life with Parkinson’s disease resemble major league baseball?

The biggest challenge to both is “the grind of it,” said Kirk Gibson, a legendary Detroit Tiger who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years ago.

“You play in a baseball season 162 games. It’s like a marathon,” he said. “You’ve just got to grind it. You’ve got to stay consistent.”

With Parkinson’s, he said, “You have to face up to it. There’s no way around it. You have to come up with a game plan. And if it’s not working, you have to tweak it a little bit.”

Gibson shared stories of baseball, life and Parkinson’s as the keynote speaker recently at Team Up to Beat Parkinson’s, a community event in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The event at DeVos Performance Hall highlighted the importance of research, including the collaborative efforts of Spectrum Health, Michigan State University and Van Andel Institute.

Facing Parkinson’s, Gibson draws on lessons learned in a baseball career that included two World Series victories―with the 1984 Tigers and the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers.

I believe you embrace what’s given to you. You can make a positive out of a negative.

Kirk Gibson

For example, in baseball, when he had a sore muscle, he got treatment. And since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he has sought medication and therapy that enables him to continue working as a Fox Sports analyst.

At one point during his TV broadcasts, his voice grew soft, a common issue with Parkinson’s patients. He sought help from Ashok Sriram, MD, the Spectrum Health neurologist and movement disorders specialist who oversees his care.

Dr. Sriram referred him to a speech therapy program that helped him turn up the volume.

“There’s no cure (for Parkinson’s) at this point, but treatments are getting better and better,” said Gibson, 59.

Speaking with the media before the event, Gibson recalled the day in April 2015 when he realized he needed to seek medical help. Just seconds before he was about to go on the air for the opening-day game, he heard a producer in his ear piece say, “Gibby, smile. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He felt filled with anxiety. He conducted the broadcast, but left before the wrap-up.

Soon, he met with Dr. Sriram, underwent tests and learned he had Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder.

Gibson, who nicknamed the disease “Parky,” said he draws strength from his wife, JoAnn, and a support team that includes family, friends, Fox Sports, the Tigers, Spectrum Health and MSU.

“You need teamwork at home and in baseball―and in dealing with Parky,” he said.

He continues to work with the Tigers in spring training.

“I like baseball. I like being in the game,” he said. “As long as I can do it, I’m going to do it. And I try to have some fun there as well.”

Through the Kirk Gibson Foundation, he also has made it his mission to raise awareness and promote research into a cure for Parkinson’s.

“I believe you embrace what’s given to you,” he said. “You can make a positive out of a negative.”

Dr. Sriram praised Gibson for sharing his experience and raising awareness about developments in the treatment of Parkinson’s.

“He is an ambassador,” Dr. Sriram said. “We need someone like him―a hero―to spread the word and the message of hope to the community.”

He wants patients to know treatments can help them reach their goals―manage demanding high-stress jobs, learn new skills and hobbies, or enjoy an active role in their grandchildren’s lives.

“We don’t see Parkinson’s the same way we did 20 years ago,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress. With the proper treatment and the proper care, we can actually give them quality of life and let them continue working productively years after their diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.”

Learn more about the comprehensive multidisciplinary Parkinson’s disease clinic at Spectrum Health.

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