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A CLOSER LOOK

Hands-On Battle

Medicine helps ease the effects of Parkinson's, but Gary Greeno finds that emotional support and music lighten his daily struggle.

May 26, 2000|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The strong tremble in Gary Greeno's right hand tells him it's time for more medication, but still he carries on, willing his fingers to strum the guitar as he sits cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by an audience of squirming toddlers.

"Build a snowman/ build a snowman/ big and round/ big and round," Greeno sings, eyes wide as he looks at his students. A 3-year-old throws her arms around his neck and playfully tugs his ponytail. Another dances happily in the middle of the circle, then runs and plops on her mother's lap.

For a few hours almost every day, Greeno teaches "Mommy and Me" music classes to hundreds of families throughout Orange County. On a good day, the sessions allow him to forget the Parkinson's disease he has battled for seven years.

On a bad day, the classes serve as a blunt reminder of just how powerful the neurological disease can be--and how powerless Greeno is to stop it.

"The quality of my life in many ways depends on how well I can balance the dosage and mixtures and timing of my medicines," said Greeno, 46, of Buena Park.

He pops pills to calm his hand when it shakes--or when it decides to open and close on its own, squeezing and releasing at such a frenzied pace that the muscles in his forearm have bulged and hardened.

He gulps tablets when his left foot decides to curl inward on its own, twisting in such a way that he has to shuffle-walk in his trademark red high-tops.

Whatever he takes must be timed carefully, down to the minute. Once, after taking one pill too soon after another, he blacked out in the middle of a class--while the children and mothers sang around him.

That's why he explains his condition to the mothers in each class. Greeno said he is always impressed by their support: "They are so kind and patient, and I feel so lucky to have a job like this. They keep me going."

Parkinson's is a condition that affects 500,000 to 1 million Americans--including the current high-profile cases of actor Michael J. Fox and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno--and each must face the disease in his or her own way.

For Greeno, that means drawing on the spiritual and emotional support of the members of his church, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Here, music is important too.

At a fellowship meeting at an Anaheim home, he sings and plays the piano to accompany the hymns, and a few friends pick up their instruments to join him. People get lost in prayer, hands reaching upward, swaying with the music.

As they pray, the people begin to congregate around Greeno; they place their hands upon him and tears roll down their cheeks as they ask for his health. Greeno sits in the middle of a circle of friends, enveloped in their love and prayers.

There is a strong optimism in the air that Greeno will be well. Still, Greeno knows that while drugs can treat his symptoms, there is no cure for Parkinson's and his condition probably will worsen over a 10- to 20-year span. He sees his neurologist, Elizabeth Ulm Blalock, every few months, mostly to adjust his medication and update her on any changes.

At a recent appointment, Greeno told Blalock his hand seemed to be trembling more, and he worried he was overmedicating himself.

Blalock altered the pills but encouraged Greeno to pair the medicine with "mind over matter" techniques like relaxation and concentration.

That his job requires him to focus on a particular activity--playing the guitar and singing--may actually help keep his symptoms more manageable, she said.

Greeno smiled and hopped down from the examination table.

"And if things ever get really bad," he said, "I can always play the drums."

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