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Fighting back against Parkinson's disease even during a pandemic

Boxing therapy helps Parkinson's patients gain better balance and mobility

O'FALLON, Ill. — Sometimes life throws punches and you have to fight back.

That's what Eileen Thornton was doing before the pandemic.

"I've been doing this for four years and when I first came, I could barely walk, " she said.

Eileen has Parkinson's disease, the little-understood neurological condition that can cause tremors and difficulty moving.

"Knowing what goes along with Parkinson's, I had this vision of myself in 5 years in a nursing home in a wheelchair, " Eileen admitted.

But Eileen and everybody else in at an O'Fallon, Illinois, gym have started hitting the disease from a new angle.

They joined a program called Rock Steady Boxing which was brought to O'Fallon in 2016 by Deborah Belsheim.

"Fitness has always been my passion," Belsheim said.

She started the gym because her late dad was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

"He would come and his personality would shine," Belsheim said. "He was the dad I knew before."

Deborah believes that if you don't challenge your limits you stay limited.

"I did 22 years in the Air Force and she's pretty rough on us but always turns around and smiles," gym member Tony Hanson said with a laugh.

Hanson is not only a veteran, he spent 15 years as a physical education teacher.  He and his wife say his posture, balance and mobility have all improved since coming here.

"We used to walk and he was unable to walk up a slight incline. He'd get lightheaded, out of breath," Tony's wife Luana said. "That's changed."

"I like the part where it makes me sweat," Tony said.

Because of COVID-19, Deborah started putting some of her classes online and is now doing some socially distant workouts at the Fairview Heights Rec-Plex. But the goal hasn't changed.

"My goal," said Belsheim, "has always been to reach every family in our community, every family that can hear us that has Parkinson's, to let them know that it's not a death sentence and that you can do something about it."

There are about 60,000 new cases of Parkinson's disease in the U.S. every year, but these folks aren't about to retreat to a neutral corner.

"It has given me hope that I'm going to lead an active life," Thornton said.

Deborah Belsheim and Rock Steady Boxing. Going toe-to-toe with Parkinson's disease.

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