Constable: Dad says Parkinson's made life 'better'
With his 50th birthday looming in 2010, suburban dad Bob Baittie vowed to get back in shape. Founder of his own design company, the Vernon Hills entrepreneur saw no reason why he couldn't accomplish his goal.
"Even as a child, I've always been blessed with this idea that things are possible," says Baittie, who tells about the time his parents left him home alone for a day and came home to discover that their 13-year-old boy had installed dimmer switches throughout their house.
"What made you think you can do that?" a parent asked.
"If you imagine it can be possible, it can be possible," Baittie explained.
Just as he was driven to learn electrical work, run his own business for 27 years and get in top physical shape, Baittie now envisions himself helping find the cure for Parkinson's disease.
"If I could possibly contribute to my own cure, why not?" says Baittie, who is one of 43 people taking part in a groundbreaking Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative study at Northwestern's Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center.
"With Bob, what a great honor it is to get to know him and be his physician," says Dr. Tanya Simuni, director of the center, a professor of neurology and Baittie's personal doctor. "Parkinson's gave him that sense of urgency and commitment. He's living well with the disease."
And then some.
"It actually has changed my life for the better. It led to my spiritual awakening," says Baittie, now 55, who says Parkinson's has made him a better, or at least a more appreciative, father, husband, son, brother and friend. He started writing a blog about Parkinson's, spirituality and healing at robertlyman.tumblr.com, and that led to a book available at tremorsintheuniverse.com.
"One day, running on the treadmill, my left leg felt awkward, clumsy, dragging a little bit," Baittie remembers.
He'd misjudge a doorway and slam his shoulder into a wall. His hands got so stiff that it was difficult to type, and he had pain and numbness on his left side. Doctors ruled out heart issues and other ailments.
"It's not this, it's not this, it's not this. Well, maybe it's not anything," his wife Debbie remembers thinking.
They met as students at the University of Illinois in 1986 while working together at Pappa Del's Pizza and still work together as parents of three. Parkinson's was such a shock that Bob Baittie didn't even take his wife to the 2012 appointment where he was diagnosed with the incurable, progressive, neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
"He told me on the phone after his appointment. I was very surprised and shocked, but Bob was so calm about it," she says.
"I came home and hopped on the Internet," Baittie says.
The first website he visited was the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
"It was almost as if God was talking to me," Baittie says, recalling the first question on the website read: "Have you recently been diagnosed and haven't started medication yet?"
That's how he hooked up with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Simuni and the study to find the markers that explain Parkinson's and how it progresses so that doctors can halt or even reverse the symptoms and cure the disease.
"Those are the holy grails," say Simuni, who has been working on Parkinson's since 1996 and often gives lectures to other researchers working toward a cure.
She can only imagine a day "when this auditorium will be empty because we've found the cure," she tells those crowds. "We've made tremendous strides in treating the symptoms."
Younger than most Parkinson's patients, Baittie is among the 25 percent who don't suffer from tremors, the most obvious and well-known symptom of Parkinson's. He waited a year to tell his parents, William and Doris Baittie, who live in Buffalo Grove, and told his kids during a winter break from school.
"It was a pretty emotional moment, but we're proud of him for the way he's approaching this disease," says Erica, 21. "He's more laid-back and peaceful about things. That's what I admire most about him."
The dad has cut back on his golf outings with 17-year-old son, Adam, who just graduated from Vernon Hills High School.
"We can still have fun," says Adam, who adds they still go to movies and have plenty to talk about.
One of Baittie's concerns when he was first diagnosed was whether he'd be able to stand up and give a speech at his daughter's wedding, something he's now looking forward to doing for Amanda, 24, on Oct. 10.
"He was always a positive guy, but after his diagnosis and finding his spiritualism, he's even more so," says Amanda. "He's on all these panels now and speaks to people with Parkinson's. If anything, it has brought us closer because we do all this fundraising."
Baittie's jokes about his career options with Parkinson's led to the family embracing the team name of "Martini Shakers" for their fundraising effort for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The Martini Shakers not only won them the prize for best T-shirt, but they have raised more than $38,000 for Parkinson's research in two years.
"You can find purpose in your life no matter what your challenges are," says Baittie, who remembers getting a life-and-death lesson in that philosophy when he was 25 years old.
"I walked out of a grocery store and saw a flier for a 5-year-old little girl dying of leukemia," remembers Baittie, who immediately donated blood and took the extra step of registering as a bone marrow donor. The girl died, but five years later, Baittie received a letter saying that he was a marrow match for a 53-year-old man in Australia.
"For me, that was a no-brainer," says Baittie, who dismisses the idea that his donation saved that stranger's life.
"It has nothing to do with me," Baittie says, explaining how he only got involved because of a sick little girl. "That girl saved this guy's life."
Now Baittie is committed to doing all he can to help those trying to cure Parkinson's and those fellow patients living with the disease.
"I keep coming back to the philosophy of imagination." Baittie says. "It's a challenge I've given myself. You're failing yourself when you stop, and that's not me. I can't control the event, but I can control my reaction to it."