“You get so much more out of giving than taking. Just try to do something nice for others every day.”
There is a Rock Steady Boxing in Chicago, not too far from my daughter’s house on the north side of the city. I found it last year when I visited her and have gone to several classes there. As in Los Angeles, the boxers have formed a bond due to Parkinson’s Disease. I am always greeted with a big “welcome back” whenever I am there.
The owner of the gym, Jim Kroeger, has Parkinson’s, so I took a few minutes of his busy day earlier this week, to talk to him about his journey with PD. Jim is an inspirational figure, not only running the gym and some of the boxing classes, but he also participates in some of the classes alongside the other boxers. Yes, he is 10 years younger than me, but I was impressed by how well he does in class. His reflexes are so fast, it was difficult to keep up with him when we were shadow boxing. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that he does not have Parkinson’s.
Jim’s story began several years before his diagnosis, like many of us with PD. The signs were there, but no one saw them. He was a weight lifter who, in his mid-40s, started to notice that his strength in his upper body was waning and that his shoulder was giving him a lot of trouble. He had an MRI which showed some tears in his rotator cuff, told it wasn’t anything serious by several shoulder specialists and was sent home with steroids. But his arm would stiffen up again and he saw another orthopedist, who gave him a diagnosis of arthritis. As time went on, his strength continued to decline and some of the things he used to do became impossible. He knew something was wrong. Simple tasks became increasingly more difficult, but he thought his symptoms were just a result of getting older. Things were getting harder and harder to do.
An outing to the Cubs game in 2013 with business school friends changed everything. The conversation eventually turned to how he was doing. He told them about his shoulder stiffness and other issues. One of the friends said that he thought Jim did look stiff. Another friend was familiar with Parkinson’s because his father-in-law was afflicted. This friend called him a couple of weeks later and said that the symptoms Jim was experiencing were similar to his father-in-law’s and recommended that he see his father-in-law’s neurologist at Northwestern. Jim never thought that he could have Parkinson’s. He just thought it was middle age and his body was falling apart.
He googled Parkinson’s and saw that he had a lot of symptoms, but he didn’t want to panic yet. So Jim went to his regular doctor and said he thought he might have PD, but the doctor did not take him seriously because of his age. He suggested another MRI on Jim’s shoulder, but Jim refused. Instead he asked to see a neurologist. Jim persevered and went across the street to the neurologist’s office that his friend recommended and tried to get an appointment. It was August and the first appointment available was December 16. He thought since it isn’t an emergency and he didn’t even know if he had Parkinson’s, he would just wait until December. He went home and didn’t think about it much, but by Thanksgiving, his condition had declined significantly. By now, his wife had to help him get dressed and put on his belt, coat, etc. At Thanksgiving, his family was very concerned about how he looked, but he didn’t want to say anything at that point.
Finally, after 3 years of odd symptoms and declining strength, on December 16, 2013 he got his diagnosis.
Jim saw an assistant to the doctor who put him through all of the moves. Count backwards from 100 by 7, which he passed with flying colors thanks to his B-school background, tap your feet, open and close your hands, etc. The doctor came in and Jim says she could probably point out people with Parkinson’s just by looking at them. Finally getting the diagnosis was a punch in the gut and a relief as well. Now he knew what he was up against and it could have been a lot worse, citing two friends from high school who had died from ALS. It all makes sense in hindsight, that the signs were all there, but he did not know what they were.
Having Parkinson’s has changed how he looks at life. Jim feels that he has a need to help others. Through his three gyms, he can offer Rock Steady Boxing classes in addition to many other exercise programs. He found out about Rock Steady from a social worker at his neurologist’s office in 2014. The only program in Chicago at the time was in the western suburbs, so she suggested that he look into offering it at his gym in the city. He then convinced some of his instructors to go to the Rock Steady training.
In the meantime, his mother connected him with Eric Johnson, a personal trainer, who was also from Madison, WI, where Jim grew up. Eric got certified to teach with Jim and the program took off as did their friendship.
Jim says boxing really keeps you sharp. Everything about boxing is perfect for all of the symptoms of PD. When he is hitting the focus mitts, he doesn’t hold back and hits as hard as he can.
His advice for the newly diagnosed: keep moving, get involved, keep a positive attitude. It is easy to get down – look at someone like Robin Williams. You can’t have that attitude. What has been great about RockSteady is that he is helping others along with himself. It is so rewarding. He sees this as the next chapter in his life and he is in a position to give back. He looks to people like Bill Gates as an inspiration, who give back using the success that they have to make the world a better place.
He has learned to appreciate life so much more. He says “You get so much more out of giving than taking. Just try to do something nice for others every day.” He sees how people in his classes improve and it feels great. If he can make people feel better, then it is certainly worth getting out of bed every day.
For more information on Rock Steady Boxing Windy City, go to: https://www.rocksteadyboxingwindycity.com/