When Jimmy Hahn straps on a pair of gloves, you can see his years in the Marine Corp and seasons of semi-pro football in his eyes. He grew up in the era of Muhammad Ali and always admired his drive. Hahn never expected to share his boxing hero’s diagnosis.
“It started out my little finger started to twitch,” Hahn said.
That twitch turned into full-blown tremors. Hahn had some family history of Parkinson’s, but it came without warning. His doctor diagnosed him when he was just 45 years old.
“You have your moments when you think, why me? Woe is me, especially when you are so active,” Hahn said.
For the next few years, Hahn’s actions followed those thoughts. It was tough to get off of the couch for anything but small chores around the house. The most movement in his day was maybe mowing his lawn in Stoughton. He even had to stop coaching high school football, saying his energy wasn’t where it needed to be to lead the team like he used to.
Like many others, Hahn felt totally alone. It took a visit to his physician, Dr. Christopher Harkin, to make him realize that’s far from the truth.
“The biggest place he was struggling is he was really trying to figure out what he could do with himself to get him to the man he used to be,” Harkin said.
Harkin, who practices at Meriter’s Stoughton clinic, said Parkinson’s disease is still a bit of a medical mystery. Research has shown there are genetic links to the neurological issue, but there’s no known cure or overriding rationale for why some people have it and others don’t.
“As Parkinson's also progresses, it does affect the brain in other ways and that is over time, people can actually develop dementia which is memory loss and other issues of where they start having more trouble with remembering things and actually just difficulty with the learning aspects of their life,” Harkin said.
Harkin said the medications to control symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease can contribute to the fatigue and feelings of apathy that already come with the diagnosis.
“A lot of people feel shameful that they have this illness,” Harkin explained, “and that's when this is really sad when all of the sudden they kind of become shut in.”
Harkin walked into Hyrbid Fitness one day and saw a group working out with punching bags and boxing gloves. He came to learn the Rock Steady Boxing program was specially designed for Parkinson’s patients. Harkin immediately thought of Jimmy Hahn and recommended the class to him, not just for the exercise.
“To me, it's just participating in a group, finding that group of people that you can identify with and help you come to grips with your illness,” Harkin said.
Hahn began the program in June and has since dropped significant weight. Twice a week, he goes to Hybrid Fitness for 90 minutes of hard work, sweat, smiles, and support.
“Just the camaraderie, you know,” Hahn said. “Everybody has their own niche, their own thing they can or cannot do. Try to help them out.”
The Rock Steady group keeps instructor Patti Batt on her toes. She’s been a personal trainer for years, but says this group has been the most fulfilling and fun endeavor she’s had in the gym.
“They go see a doctor, they're told they have Parkinson's, it's a degenerative disease and basically there's no cure, and that's so hopeless. This is about hope,” Batt said.
Batt leads the class in 45 minutes of boot camp-style activities, all designed to help with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. A lot of the activities involve counting or chanting loudly. Batt said that voice activation can prevent voices from getting quieter, a common side effect of the disease.
Batt also emphasizes good posture throughout the workout. She said a stooped posture can contribute to a smaller diaphragm and those issues with loud and clear speech. The second 45 minutes is all based on boxing. Both Batt and Harkin said the repetition of punches is helpful when controlling the tremors.
Above all, Batt says the support system means a lot to the Rock Steady participants.
“I think the biggest thing is emotionally, the outlet that it provides them,” Batt said. “There's something really good. It makes them feel like they're fighting back.”
Hahn certainly feels that way.
“I had an old saying when I was in the Marine Corps: Hit hard, hit often and keep on hitting,” Hahn said. “Come to realize that 20 years ago when I got that quote, here I'm still using it today and helping my own self out.”
Since starting with the Rock Steady program, Hahn has picked up part time work in at the Pick N Save in Stoughton. He’s even able to walk the mile or so to and from his job.
Hahn says he’d love to one day become a Rock Steady instructor to help others with Parkinson’s disease in the future.