When Michael Witt first received the news that he has Parkinson’s disease, he was shocked.
At age 46 at the time of his diagnosis, the Northwest High School English teacher thought Parkinson’s was “not something that you think of younger people getting,” but rather “an older person’s disease.” Nonetheless, Witt was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s.
Witt’s wife, Stephanie King-Witt, said her husband’s diagnosis at such a young age is “pretty rare.”
Witt said he had been concerned about not being able to straighten out his pinkie. He brought it up to his family doctor who suggested he see a neurologist to “get things checked out and see what was going on.” It was there that his battle with Parkinson’s officially began.
“The official diagnosis was two years ago, but it started before that,” King-Witt said. “The symptoms are not visible until they start affecting your brain. He has probably had it for longer than he has been diagnosed.”
With his Parkinson’s, Witt said he gets a tremor in his left arm, which makes it difficult for him to write as he is left-handed. He added he has some balance issues and that his fine motor skills are a challenge.
“My balance issues are not horribly bad enough that I notice it,” Witt said. “There is an occasional freezing in motion where I will get ‘stuck in a glitch,’ which is not good. My fine motor skills are also a challenge.”
Despite his Parkinson’s, Witt continues to teach at Northwest and coach girls softball and high jump in track and field.
“My principal (Tim Krupicka) and I talked before I even announced to the staff,” he said. “I said, ‘I would like to stay in the classroom as long as possibly can. As long as I am effective, still being a good teacher, doing the right things and educating kids in the proper way, I will continue to teach.’ I think this is one of those hidden lessons I can help teach kids.”
King-Witt said the best thing for her husband is to keep moving, which teaching and coaching allows him to do.
An outpouring of support
Since announcing his Parkinson’s diagnosis to his students and Northwest teachers and staff this past January, Witt has received an outpouring of support.
When Northwest sophomore Jenna Buettner heard the news, she decided to do something to create awareness for Parkinson’s disease. She said she contacted the Parkinson’s Foundation in Florida to get some ideas of how to do so.
“I was fascinated by Parkinson’s and learned more about it,” Buettner said. “I still do not fully understand it. The bad thing about Parkinson’s is that it is not well-known. You could ask a group of 100 people or more and I bet that less than one or two would know what it is or how to explain it.”
Since Witt is a track and field coach, Buettner decided to host a Parkinson’s walk. The walk will be during the intermission of the Dave Gee Track Invite April 18. Buettner said she expects the walk to begin around 5 p.m.
“You do not have to pay to get in. It is a free-will donation,” she said. “We will have buckets set out and we are planning to have our volunteers wear red shirts. We are going to have informational flyers as well.”
In addition to Thursday’s Parkinson’s walk, the Northwest student council is selling wristbands with the words “Parkinson’s awareness” and “Witt’s warriors” printed on them.
“We wanted to do T-shirts, but we decided that may not be the best option. So we decided to do wristbands,” Buettner said. “We did not know what we were going to put on them. We were going to just put ‘Parkinson’s awareness’ on them originally, but we wanted to do something more. So we came up with ‘Witt’s warriors.’ That came to be and we have sold over 200 of them. I am so excited to sell more. I love that so many people are behind this and want to do more.”
Buettner said a number of Northwest students, teachers and staff have purchased a bracelet. She added it has attracted attention beyond the Northwest community as the Crete softball team purchased some bracelets as well.
Those interested in purchasing a wristband may do so at the Parkinson’s walk or by emailing Darbie Mazour at firstname.lastname@example.org. The wristbands are $2 each. Funds raised from the wristband sales will go toward funding more Parkinson’s research.
Student council steps up
Mazour, student council adviser, said Witt’s announcement of his Parkinson’s diagnosis was a “pretty emotional time” for Northwest and she encouraged her students to do something.
“I said, ‘Let’s do something’ and Jenna got on board. We texted and emailed back and forth and it got going,” Mazour said. “The student council is a wonderful group of kids. They see a need and they want to do something to help. I think sometimes it is hard to step up to do something like that. That is what these kids do. They see a need, do something about it and are part of a family.”
Witt said he was surprised and “honored” that the Northwest student council chose to raise awareness for Parkinson’s disease by selling the wristbands and organizing the Parkinson’s walk.
“Mrs. Mazour came, told me and asked if I would mind if the kids did that. I was surprised that they were interested,” he said. “I didn’t know that they had been talking about my condition and what was going on. I only announced it in January to teachers and to students in my class, not the entire school. I felt honored and was very surprised that there is that kind of interest and that kind of support from the community.”
King-Witt said Parkinson’s disease has no cure and that her husband’s condition will “continue to worsen.”
“Mike is currently opting to live without the treatment of any drugs that could help his symptoms, which is his choice. The side effects of such drugs are very frightening,” she said.
King-Witt said some of the “frightening” side effects of the Parkinson’s drugs are compulsive behaviors. She added Witt may have to go on the drugs at some point when his condition worsens, but for now is choosing not to be on them until he has to be.
In his battle with Parkinson’s, Witt said his wife is his “rock.”
“Stephanie has just been amazing through this whole ordeal,” he said. “Parkinson’s is not something either of us would wish on anybody. She has really been supportive and very firm in her love and support. I could not do it without her.”
Those interested in following Witt’s journey with Parkinson’s can do so by liking the “Witt’s Warriors: Mike’s Journey with Parkinson’s Disease” Facebook page at www.facebook.com/wittsparkinsonswarriors.