Parkinson's attacked Ed Blazek's brain, but his spirit and drive are going full tilt

January 11, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

ED BLAZEK was invited to a special showing of "Awakenings" in Washington this week because he is a crusader for people with Parkinson's disease. He became a crusader soon after he was diagnosed as having the disease nine years ago.

He is 72, soft-spoken, tall and lean, a bit stooped now, and lives in the White Marsh area of Baltimore County. A retired manager for Martin Marietta Aerospace, where he ran the department that kept track of parts for the B-1 bomber, Blazek has started support groups for people with Parkinson's disease. He also produces a newsletter for the Parkinsonian Society of Greater Baltimore, of which he is founder and president.

As he watched "Awakenings," which has its share of poignant moments, he showed no emotion. But afterward he said the movie accurately portrays the frustration of being trapped inside a body that's out of control.

"It gets hold of you and makes a different person out of you," he said. "Your mind knows what you want to do, but your body doesn't do it."

The special showing was sponsored in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which is America's focal point for brain research. Congress and President Bush have declared the 1990s the "Decade of the Brain," in hopes of spurring research into the cause and cure of brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease.

"Awakenings" is based on the true story of a doctor in the late 1960s who uses the drug levodopa, or L-DOPA, to treat patients severely crippled by the most extreme symptoms of Parkinson's disease. L-DOPA is now the main drug for treating Parkinson's disease.

Blazek knows all about the drug and the disease, but in 1982, when his right hand began trembling, he assumed it was just part of getting old.

He was always a bold man who walked through life with giant strides. His co-workers at Martin Marietta kept telling him to slow down. One day one of them said, "Hey, that's great. You finally took our advice."

He'd done no such thing. He had started taking smaller strides, but he hadn't even noticed. He'd begun compensating for a subtle loss of balance. He had, however, noticed the slight shaking of his right hand.

He went to his family doctor, who recommended that he see a neurologist. The neurologist told him on his first visit he probably had Parkinson's disease.

"Of course, never being sick a day in my life, I said, 'What the hell's Parkinson's disease?' " Blazek says now.

It is a brain disease that impairs people's ability to control their bodies. Their brains lack a chemical substance called dopamine, which serves as a connector of nerve cells, much as a string of wire connects the lights on a Christmas tree.

The lack of dopamine disrupts brain messages controlling movement, and people's hands and feet may begin to tremble. They may lose their balance, walk with short, shuffling steps, or begin to lose their ability to comprehend.

"I asked him how do you cure it," Blazek says, "and he told me there was no cure, only pills and medication to slow it down."

Doctors don't know the exact cause of Parkinson's disease, but it can be triggered by a virus, a drug or an environmental toxin. How did Blazek get it? "I don't have the slightest idea," he says.

He fell into a deep depression and started seeing a psychiatrist. She told him: All your life you've organized things. Now why don't you organize a Parkinson's support group?

Blazek, who grew up on a 3,800-acre cattle and grain farm in South Dakota, had started a local 4-H group as a boy. He had also formed a club for him and his buddies who raced old cars on sand tracks, an organization for pilots after he'd learned to fly, the Maryland Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association after he'd started his own RV dealership, and four camping clubs. He was a founder of the national Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association as well.

In the early 1940s, shortly after he'd started working for Glenn L. Martin Co., which later was merged into Martin Marietta, he managed more than 600 employees at a Martin branch in Omaha, Neb. The company installed larger oxygen systems and more powerful guns in B-25s and B-29s. Blazek was in his 20s.

"I get tired of waiting for people to do something," he says. "People say they can't do this, they can't do that. Can't isn't a word in my vocabulary."

He started support groups at Baltimore County General Hospital and Union Memorial Hospital, and helped start groups in several counties around the state. The groups are for people with the disease as well as the people who care for them. Blazek, who has two sons and lives with his wife, is able to care for himself.

He writes his monthly newsletter, which nearly 500 people receive, on his home computer. And he organizes events such as an annual outing to a dinner theater in efforts to get people with Parkinson's disease out of the house or nursing home.

"This is one of the problems," he says. "It's an embarrassing disease. You get to shaking and spill your coffee, or get to stuttering, or bump into something or even fall over. After a while you tend to stay away from people."

Blazek, whose symptoms are not so advanced, takes four kinds of pills seven times a day, including an experimental drug from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He exercises on a machine that simulates the body movements in cross-country skiing.

Still, he says, the disease is gradually robbing him of the control of his body.

"Parkinson's disease doesn't kill you," Blazek says. "It weakens some part of your body -- your heart or your lungs or something like that -- and this is what kills you. You can get depressed real quick."

He tries not to dwell on that, he says. He stays as active as possible, and this is one of the things that keeps him going.

"But when the Good Lord does pull my time card from the rack," he says, "I just hope it's quick."

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