Bret Parker, right, and his trainer Lyon Marcus, left, after an intense training session at Long Beach on Monday. Photo by Mara Certic.
By Mara Certic
Bret Parker is a husband, father, skydiver and lawyer, and if all goes according to plan, by next month he will also be a triathlete. While this may not seem particularly newsworthy, it is important to mention that not only does Mr. Parker have Parkinson’s disease, he is deathly afraid of water. But he has resolved to conquer his fear in order to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
He still remembers it vividly: he was 3 years old, running around a pool when he tripped over a hose and fell in. Someone pulled him to safety quickly, but the damage was already done. Mr. Parker was traumatized and has been terrified of water for decades.
Mr. Parker grew up, became a lawyer, got married and lived with his wife and two children in the New York City. The family bought a house in Noyac in 2001, and Mr. Parker considers Long Beach his “backyard,” but still he didn’t want to swim. Then, in 2007 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
He had noticed a slight tremor in his right hand. He went to the doctor, who, after a series of basic motor tests, concluded that Mr. Parker, now 46, had Parkinson’s. “There’s no blood test,” he explained, so the diagnosis really took him aback. So much so that Mr. Parker and his wife Katharine kept it secret, didn’t really tell anyone and carried on business as usual.
Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement, causing tremors, stiffness and the gradual slowing down of every-day motions. There is no known cure—as of yet—but medications can mitigate many of the side effects.
In 2012, when Mr. Parker began to take medication for his disease, he decided that it was time to “come out.” He wrote a blog on Forbes.com, telling his friends, family, colleagues and the rest of the internet world about his diagnosis. “For a long time, silence seemed logical. As long as my Parkinson’s was not impacting my day-to-day functioning, no one had to know,” he wrote in his 2012 “outing.”
“When I was first diagnosed, my symptoms were almost impossible to detect and there wasn’t anything for my family or friends “to do” so I figured it wasn’t worth telling people,” he continued.
But then a close friend of his told him that he had plans to run 50 miles for 10 charities, and invited Mr. Parker to run a five-mile stint with him to raise funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. “I was so touched by his grand gesture — how could I refuse?” he wrote.
“The answer is finally clear. This is the year to leave my secret behind — to literally run past my fears, my doubts and my hesitation,” he continued. Mr. Parker ran the five miles and raised $115,000 for the Fox Foundation. The next year, he decided to take a leap of faith, literally, and raised $50,000 for the organization by jumping out of a plane at Skydive Long Island.
“When you have an illness you realize you were living under the fiction of being in control,” said Mrs. Parker, a breast cancer survivor herself. When Mrs. Parker signed up for the Mighty Hamptons Triathlon on September 7, her husband resolved to conquer his fear of water once and for all and to do the same.
He hired Iron Man veteran Lyon Marcus as his trainer and began the slow process of really learning how to swim in May. In the first four weeks of his training, Mr. Parker didn’t go into the water once. In fact, when he told this to a triathlete friend of his, she told him to fire his trainer and get a new one. But Mr. Parker kept with it, learning exercises on land to strengthen his core and upper body.
“It was terrible,” Mrs. Parker said of her husband’s swimming, “I can’t even tell you what a transformation this is,” she said as she watched him swim laps in Noyac Bay on Tuesday morning.
One of the lesser-known facts about Parkinson’s disease is that stress and anxiety worsen the tremors and stiffness. Mr. Parker’s fear of the water exacerbated his symptoms. But soon his 10-minute swimming stints became 20 minutes and last week, Mr. Parker swam the full 1,500 meters he will have to swim during the triathlon. “He’s got a will you can’t even imagine,” Mr. Marcus said.
After over 40 years, Mr. Parker has conquered his fear. He is not planning on winning the triathlon, but he’s certainly planning on finishing it—even though he will have to take a day’s worth of medication in a period of about four hours.
Mr. Parker is the executive director of the New York City Bar Association and a member of the Fox Foundation’s Patient Council. “I have two big beefs with Parkinson’s,” he said on Tuesday. The first is something that he was guilty of for five years—keeping it a secret. The second is the extreme optimism shown by many sufferers of the disease. “Optimism masks the fact that they’ve been using the same drug for 40 years,” he said, adding that more research must be done.
Days after Robin Williams’s suicide shocked the world, his wife released a statement disclosing that her husband had been suffering from depression, anxiety and the early stages of Parkinson’s, “which he was not yet ready to share publicly.”
The diagnosis was hard, but Parkinson’s has taught Mr. Parker about the uncertainty of life and has provided him with a new mantra: “live life as large as you can, as long as you can.”
For more information about the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research visit michaeljfox.org. To donate to Mr. Parker’s fundraising efforts visit www2.michaeljfox.org/goto/parker. The Mighty Hamptons Triathlon will take place on Sunday, September 7. The event will begin at 6:40 a.m. with the 1.5-kilometer swim at Long Beach. For more information about the triathlon visit eventpowerli.com.