Parkinson's disease has become one of the leading causes of death for Americans over the age of 45, and its numbers are only expected to increase. 

According to the National Parkinson Foundation, approximately 30,000 Ohioans who are 45 or older are living with Parkinson's disease and approximately one million people nationwide are living with PD. 

It is the 14th leading cause of death in the united states and the second most common neurodegenerative condition after Alzheimer's. 

For one Boardman woman, the fight against Parkinson's is personal. 

Paula Caldwell was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2005 after her husband noticed some troubling symptoms.  

"He said why are you holding your arm as if it's in a sling, and I said because I'm going to open the door, and he said you're 20 feet away from the door. He knew that there was something wrong, I was dragging my right foot and I was carrying my hand," Paula explained. "But I was in denial, and I was busy. I was teaching and my doctor left town so it took me a while to find a new doctor and find the time. And then I did go to Cleveland Clinic and I was diagnosed in 2005."

"I had breast cancer and that was not as bad as hearing that I had Parkinson's, because my mother had breast cancer and she survived and I thought, ok, I'll beat that," she continued. 

"I only have control over myself, I can't control the things that happen to me, in this world, but I can control how I respond," Caldwell said. 

Now, nearly 15 years later, Caldwell is on a mission to "punch out Parkinson's". 

She heard about Rock Steady Boxing, a fitness program specifically dedicated to combatting the symptoms of Parkinson's from a long-time friend. 

"A girlfriend of mine from kindergarten, who's a nurse in Missouri was visiting her brother in Indianapolis and she saw it on the news. And so since we're such best friends she told me about it and kind of hounded me for several years until I investigated it," Paula detailed.  

Paula began traveling several times a week to Canton- one of the only classes in northeast Ohio. 

In 2017, she traveled to Indianapolis and became a certified Rock Steady Boxing trainer. Then came the task of finding a local gym to host the program. 

 "I made a cold call, I wasn't planning to come, I just- I was talking on the phone to my friend in Missouri and I told her about this gym that I hadn't called on and she said why don't you go now. I said 'I'm not prepared, I have no literature, I've been babysitting all day, I'm tired.' She said 'what do you have to lose?' So I stopped by here and the owner, Doug Stein just happened to be in, and I sat down with him, told him about it. And he embraced it." 

From there Stein and several of the trainers jumped on board- going through online training before traveling for a session on symptoms and guidelines for Parkinson's. 

Trainer Shannon Cutrer says the lessons were empowering and gave her specific insight into how to help Parkinson's patients. 

"With Parkinson's, as the neurons are dying off and the dopamine is being depleted, everything is starting to shrink and shorten and there's shuffle of the gait, the steps are smaller, so we really work on exaggerated movements, so when they're at home in their daily life they'll be able to be more mindful with some of the workouts that we're offering here in class," Cutrer said. 

She explained saying, "So if they're sitting in their chair and their stuck and they're not able to get up right away, maybe they'll think about the smash ball, you know imagine lifting the ten pound ball and as they smash it they lift their arms in a swinging up motion and raise themselves up out of the chair." 

It's training that Paula says she puts to use. 

"I don't pick my feet up, so I have I have a tendency to fall and trip and fall and one of the exercises we do here is we have to lift our feet up, up over some of them, lift our feet up over the equipment," she says. 

For Clint Burchfield, a retired Boardman police detective, the classes have been a life saver, in more ways than one. 

"I was really depressed and I wasn't doing much and I heard about this and said let's give it a try and it's made a heck of a difference already," Burchfield said.  "I shook a lot more and I was a lot stiffer. I used to fall a lot and now I don't fall all the time." 

"We even practice falling, because eventually, you'll fall with Parkinson's. And I have grab bars all over the house in case I need them, but I don't need them," Burchfield explained. "The pain and embarrassment of going out to eat to a restaurant and shaking, it dials it back." 

For Paula and Clint, the classes are a chance to let off some steam. 

Burchfield explained saying, "you get angry sometimes that you don't have the strength that you used to have, and we hit those bags and I growl when I do it, I go urrgghh cause I get so mad sometimes." 

"When I'm using the speed bag, what I'm thinking about, I'm thinking I'm punching, and what am I punching, I'm punching Parkinson's," Caldwell said. 

The rock steady boxing training also gives those with Parkinson's an added layer of support. 

"It's up to us as a coach to also recognize signs, so if we can tell their caregiver 'you know we've noticed some change, when's the last time he's been to his physician, maybe you might want to check into this or follow up with that because we're just really worried about him today," Cutrer said. 

And while Paula values taking the class over teaching it, she does lead the fighters in yoga at the end of the workouts. 

"There's a purpose with everything we do. To meet the needs from the disease," she explained. 

"People with Parkinson's often have a plain face, we don't have expression, and so we do facial exercises, we look really cute when we're making all our different faces, just to use the muscles," she said. "We rotate our fingers, our digits because our hands get very stiff. Our handwriting starts off nice and dwindles down to nothing. So we do movements for our fingers, we do a lot of stretching, and we connect breath to movement."

But the benefit goes beyond the physical workouts and the symptoms- rock steady boxing is also about community. 

"It's also the camaraderie that we've developed. We talk about our medicines, we talk about our, um, the side effects, we talk about our symptoms, we talk about, we give each other tips on how to handle different problems that go along with Parkinson's," Caldwell expressed. "If you have 100 people you probably have 100 different forms of Parkinson's, but we all have some similarities,  and we all take some of the same medicines. And we understand what it's like to be diagnosed"

It's a sentiment Burchfield echoed. 

"Some people have it worse and some people have it better. And we relate in different ways to it, but we're all in the same basket together," he said. 

The bond has left its mark not just on the fighters, but also on the gym itself. 

"And they're learning more about themselves and their capabilities, and by watching others and supporting each other- they've given each other nicknames-  you know it's been really empowering," Cutrer said. 

But for Cutrer, teaching the class goes beyond just another workout or training session. 

"It's personal," she said. "And Paula, just learning about Parkinson's through her, actually helped me recognize signs in my own father." 

Now they are hoping to spread the message and help others who are ready to go toe-to-toe with Parkinson's. 

Cutrer said that it's ok to not be strong every day, but that the classes can help. 

"You can do it. And you don't have to be strong every day. Let yourself off the hook every once in a while, give yourself permission to say mmm I'm not feeling it. But just do something, just be moving on some level," she said. 

Burchfield hopes that others can see the small changes that have made his life much easier. 

"Get in here and fight it. Even if you can't do anything, you'll start to do small things and have a better life I think," he said. 

For Paula Caldwell, the mission to get the word out about Rock Steady Boxing is the ultimate goal. Her message to anyone fighting Parkinson's is simple: "I would say get out of your chair, come to VSN and join us," she said. "Fight it. Just because you were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease doesn't mean it can take you over completely." 

Rock Steady Boxing classes are held four times a week at this point. However, Cutrer said they are looking to expand once the word spreads about the training. 

Classes are held on the following days and times at VSN Fitness in Boardman: 

  • Monday @ 1:30 p.m.
  • Thursday @1:30 p.m.
  • Thursday @ 6 p.m. 
  • Saturday @ 9 a.m.