On Tuesday, October 24th, The Parkinson Alliance held its 3rd annual Food, Wine & Maybe Tuscany event in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.  While enjoying an evening of food and wine, attendees were also treated to an inspiring talk by guest speaker, Bret Parker.

Bret is a 51 year old attorney who is currently the Executive Director of the New York City Bar Association.  He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 38.  Initially he kept the diagnosis, which he thought to be some sort of carpal tunnel issue, to himself.  He wrestled within.  On the one hand, he didn’t want potential pity or prejudice. On the other, he wanted to be open with friends and family and wanted to get involved with raising awareness and money for a cure. With his symptoms not impacting his day-to-day life, it seemed there was no need to worry anyone. Silence was best.  Each year, as he hid symptoms such as hand and leg tremors, stiffness, and slowness in movement, he contemplated when he would break his silence. Then, his young son asked “Daddy, why does your hand shake?” With tears, he revealed his condition to a close few.

In 2012, five years after his diagnosis, a good friend who knew of Bret’s condition was running 50 miles to raise money for 10 charities.  His friend asked Bret to run a 5-mile section of the event with him to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.  He realized his friend’s decision to raise money inadvertently gave him the needed push to finally reveal his condition. He broke his silence by  writing a blog post for Forbes — his “coming out” of sorts — and asking those in his world to read it. “As I contemplated how I would finally reveal my condition, I realized that my secrecy was not protecting me at all. Rather, it was my way of denying that I have this chronic disease and controlling the one thing I could control – how many people know I have Parkinson’s. … By keeping a secret I have accomplished nothing. Not only that, I have squandered opportunity: opportunity to deepen relationships with friends and family; opportunity to rally support for Parkinson’s research; opportunity to confront my fears and educate people; and opportunity to help others like me who have been affected by this disease or by other diseases that they feel they must endure in silence.”

Since that time, Bret has participated in one event per year to raise awareness and money for Parkinson’s research. To date, he has raised over $600,000!  He did marathons, a triathlon — quite impressive considering water terrifies him, a mountain climb, and raised some $50,000 during a sky dive.  Then, after reading about a British school teacher, Ted Jackson, completing The World Marathon Challenge, Bret decided if Ted could do it, Bret could do it.

Early 2018, Bret flew to Cape Town, South Africa to begin his journey in the World Marathon Challenge. The World Marathon Challenge is billed as a “logistical and physical challenge to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.” In other words, an extremely difficult event for anyone, let alone a 49 year old man with Parkinson’s.  Competitors are scheduled to run the standard 26.2 mile distance in Antarctica, Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and North America within 168 hours, or seven days. The event began at the first marathon location in Antarctica. From there he returned to Cape Town (Africa) to do his next marathon, then Perth (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Lisbon (Europe), Cartagena (South America), and finally Miami (North America).  Listening to Bret, the audience shared laughs and tears as he described his highs and lows. We learned his marathon in Antarctica was one of his best, finishing in 6 hours and change despite dropping his bag of pills and his iPhone not playing music after the temperature hit 20 degrees F.  Through tears, we also heard about how when in Lisbon, Bret could just about finish due to severe blisters on his left foot. He told us Ted Jackson, the very school teacher that inspired him to join the Challenge, walked with Bret for the last four miles of that marathon. “We called ourselves Team Hold the Plane.”  He talked about a t-shirt he once spotted that said “Do Epic Sh*t.”  That phrase resonated with him, and he decided one either makes the decision to do epic things or not.  But he also acknowledged that for people with Parkinson’s, just getting out of bed, fighting through depression, and taking the next step is epic. “Take it day by day,” he encouraged, “Be epic.”

We were honored and inspired by Bret’s story and thank him for being our guest speaker at this year’s event.  We also thank everyone who attended and supported the 2019 Food, Wine & Tuscany event and hope to see you again next year. We also invite you to listen to Bret talk about his journey in the video below.

— Gloria Hansen, for The Parkinson Alliance

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