Moving On: Part I — The Diagnosis

Three years ago, Keith Lawson sat waiting in his local neurologist’s lobby, waiting for his name to ring across the room so that he could get on with the rest of his day. He had a lot planned and not as much time as he would like.

The then-55-year-old isn’t typically one to sit idle. Rare moments of inactivity are filled instead with his voice, gregarious and warm — yet soft and contemplative. In his previous visits to this lobby, he had become friendly with the staff. They often chatted to pass the time before his appointment. This particular morning though, he recalls that no one seemed interested in speaking. So he thumbed through a magazine that he didn’t care to read and observed the room around him.

He took in the strangely aqua-colored carpeting — it matched the stiffly uncomfortable chair in which he resided, in which he had resided far longer than usual today — at least, it felt like it.

Lawson had been a regular at the neurologist for the past several years due to back pain. He would visit the office every few months to receive six injections into the back of his lower neck, just above his shoulders. The shots helped to relieve pains that sometimes spread out into his arms and crept down his spine. These visits normally conformed to a template procedure. Lawson would enter a small, rectangular back room and sit again to await his neurologist. The neurologist would enter, shake Lawson’s hand, and they might exchange a few updates — conversation began with one another’s families and generally drifted towards golf. Lawson would then move to lie face-down on a white table placed in the center of the room, where he would receive his six injections and be on his way.

On this morning however, when his neurologist entered the room, there was no golf talk. Instead, the doctor walked into the room, offered a quick handshake, and then backed away, putting the white table between Lawson and himself. This was not normal.

“I guess I’m not getting my injections today,” Lawson recalls thinking. 

His doctor took a deep breath and paused for a long moment. Finally, he began, “I’m very sorry, but I have some bad news for you.” He continued on to inform Lawson that, based on his self-reported symptoms and tests they had performed during his last visit, Lawson had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

For a rare instance, Lawson couldn’t find a word to say. Thoughts swirled through his mind, but few escaped his mouth. He had never met anyone with Parkinson’s before. He realized that he didn’t really know what the word meant. The names Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali flashed into his mind, but he wasn’t even sure what effects the disease had on them. He just knew they had it.

Today, Lawson doesn’t remember how he eventually replied. But he remembers his neurologist telling him, “This disease isn’t going to kill you, but it is going to make the rest of your life more difficult … and you are going to die with it.”

His neurologist assured him that he would have support. Once Lawson collected himself though, the doctor explained that he would need to come back for a follow-up visit in a week. He then handed Lawson some medication, no description, and he was out the door.

“I can usually be vivid in my explanations of things, I can usually remember things really well. But I don’t even remember driving home that day,” Lawson recalled.

Once home, he slumped down into a chair, unsure of what to do. His wife was at work; he would have to tell her. His children were grown and out of the house; he would have to tell them too. Tell them what, exactly?

“They tell you that you have Parkinson’s, and then you go home,” he said. “I didn’t even know what this meant for my lifespan. Was I going to die in the next five years?”

Hours ago, he had scheduled out every moment left of his day. Now, he had no schedule for what could be the rest of his life.

This is the first part in a series, entitled “Moving On.” The Old Gold & Black will be publishing subsequent sections throughout the remainder of the semester and can also be found online on our website.