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Monday Montanan: Dennis O'Donnell

Parkinson's disease forced economics professor Dennis O'Donnell to retire from the University of Montana in 2007, but he doggedly continues to pursue an active lifestyle. O'Donnell is following up publication of his anecdotal "Taking on Parkinson's" last year with a spy novel set in the 1950s around nuclear testing in Colorado. 

CHELSEA CULP, Missoulian

The two Hells Angels turned heads when they entered a hushed auditorium in Great Falls at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

This was in 2010, three years after economics professor Dennis O’Donnell retired from the University of Montana and a decade into his confrontations with the Parkinson’s disease that's slowly invading his body.

These days he’s still getting around OK with a cane when he’s “on” and a walker when he’s “off.” But O’Donnell’s energy was sapped after two days in Great Falls and he was in a wheelchair at the back of the theater when the graying, leather-clad men lumbered in.

One, O’Donnell figures, was 6-foot-6 and weighed more than 300 pounds.

“I call him Sir,” the retired economics professor said last week. “The other guy was a skinny, cigarette-smoking kind of guy I just call Slim.”

O’Donnell, 71, spoke from an easy chair in his home high above Pattee Canyon, one he’s shared with wife Mary Ellen Campbell for 35 years.

April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, and O’Donnell’s history with “PD” is but one of many in the Missoula area that can only be cast as heroic.

He told the Hells Angels story with the same humor and humility that grace his 2017 self-published book, “Taking on Parkinson’s.”

“They were noisy when they arrived and they were sort of noisy when they were there,” O’Donnell said. “But the show ended, and I had to go to the bathroom.”

As is typical these days, he said, the restroom was handicap accessible but its entrance wasn’t.

“The main door had this huge spring on it. In my case I think a grizzly bear would have trouble getting in the door,” O’Donnell said.

So it was a great relief when Sir and Slim came up behind him. One shoved the door open. The other pushed him into the restroom.

“They saw a guy who was not disabled go into the stall for disability. Sir went (throat-clearing sound), and the guy immediately turned around and left,” O’Donnell said. “You don’t argue with a Hells Angel.”

Barely a word was spoken as the men waited for O’Donnell to do his business. He wanted to thank them, he said, but when he came out of the stall, one of them said, “We’ve got a friend.”

“It was his way of explaining that, in fact, they were taking care of their friend in their minds,” said O’Donnell. “They took me out of the bathroom and said goodbye.”

Sir and Slim left in a roar of Harleys.

“I’ve often associated that with being taken care of,” said the still strapping O’Donnell.

***

Put yourself in his wheelchair.

You’ve lived your life solving physical dilemmas great and small on your own. You have your pride, your intellect, your self-possession, but also a keen sense of your developing disability. Do you seek help, or do you wet your pants?

Parkinson’s puts you in precarious situations, O’Donnell said.

“You can’t move. You get stuck in a door because you tend to freeze, and you need somebody to help you out a little bit,” he said. “It may be just a minor thing like talking to you and getting your attention diverted from walking, and then you go ahead and walk.”

“There are good days and good moments and there are bad moments,” said Phil Bornstein, a clinical psychologist in Missoula who is probably O’Donnell’s closest friend. “We’ll be having a great conversation and it’ll be time to end the conversation and get up from the table, and he’s virtually frozen in place. He can’t move. He’ll hold on, take a deep breath and eventually he’s able to get up.”

Too many Parkinson's victims isolate themselves, O’Donnell said. “They think there’s very little help out there.”

What he has discovered, and one reason he wrote “Taking on Parkinson’s,” is that when given the chance, so many people are “tremendously helpful” to a PD victim, or anyone with mobility problems.

“I call them accidental heroes. They just happen upon a situation and they come to your aid,” O’Donnell said.

As he talks, yes, the involuntary tics and shoulder shrugs are apparent. So too are a sharp mind, effortless wit and unaffected speech. The latter wasn’t a given after a momentous decision to undergo brain surgery in 2013.

Twelve years in, the effectiveness of his medicines was starting to fail. At the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, doctors fit two probes into the deep part of his brain and connected them to a device akin to a pacemaker implanted in his chest. Electric pulses performed the motor control tasks that the neurotransmitter dopamine once did before Parkinson’s siphoned it off.

“You can take more medicine and have more of what they call dyskinesia” — fidgeting, wiggling, head bobbing or writhing, O’Donnell said.

“You’ve seen Michael J. Fox. That’s dyskinesia, which is usually caused by too much dopamine. So the only alternative to that is take less dopamine, and then your tremors are worse. So you wind up in this box.”

The deep brain stimulation, or DBS, went smoothly. Nearly five years after undergoing deep brain stimulation, O’Donnell can say, “It’s worked wonderfully for me. Really, I’ve benefited more than most people do. Many people lose their ability to speak. I certainly didn’t.”

Others don’t get as much relief from tremors as he did, he added.

He takes eight dosages per day of dopamine. Before the operation he was taking 32, and would probably be up to 50 had he not undergone DBS.

Parkinson’s is degenerative, which means it gets worse over time. There is no cure, only ways and medications to help manage it. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with PD each year and more than 10 million people worldwide live with the disease, including roughly a million Americans.

Its effects on Fox, boxer Muhammad Ali and Pope John Paul II are well-documented. O’Donnell’s book is a rarity, a bona fide page-turner with an insider’s view of the disease, built around 27 personal stories like that of the Hell’s Angels.

“His writing mixes humor with poignancy, and I found myself alternately laughing, fighting tears, and feeling angry about some of the bureaucratic barriers he faced during his effort to live life as fully as possible,” reads one of the 13 unanimously glowing reviews on Amazon.com, where the 230-page paperback sells for $9.99.

O’Donnell was born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After earning economics degrees at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, a couple of others at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and his doctorate at Penn State, he came to teach at UM in 1974.

His scope went from regional economics to international after taking two students from Nepal under his wing and eventually traveling to their home country. His travels abroad continued, and O’Donnell became chair of the university’s Asian studies program. He also had a forensics consulting business, testifying as an expert witness in court cases.

The American Planning Association published O'Donnell's “Planning Small Town America” in 1990.  Like “Taking on Parkinson’s,” it wasn’t Missoula-specific but was applicable to his chosen hometown. It championed the idea that growing towns install infrastructure before building houses near it.

“I think one thing that’s really significant is Dennis is a really smart guy,” Bornstein said. “As the disease progressed he got to a point where he had to give up all that, his consulting work and his teaching. That was difficult for him.”

The first manifestation of Parkinson's occurred in 2000. It was a slight shaking of his left pinky finger. O’Donnell describes in Chapter 1 of his book how impossible it was to hide it in his front pocket before a class of 150 college freshmen and sophomores. He called the chapter “The Parky Professor.”

It was a month after his father died at age 84 of complications from Parkinson’s following 10 years with the disease. O’Donnell was 54 and an active handball player and fly fisherman.

He committed himself to fighting PD with a vigorous exercise regime. He believes that by continuing to play handball and golf, to ski, swim, bicycle and fish, "the debilitating aspects of Parkinson’s such as loss of agility and hand-eye coordination, balance and body management and control can be managed somewhat and even pushed back,” O’Donnell states in a bio on the website of the Missoula-based Summit For Parkinson’s.

At Mary Ellen’s insistence, he’s committed to doing “something scary” each year.

“She’s very forceful,” he said of his wife. “So I tend to be taking on things that I normally wouldn’t. I did zip-lining in Costa Rica. I just came back from Belize, and a fishing trip with my nephew. I’ve always wanted to catch a tarpon. I caught a bonefish, not a tarpon, but anyway I got something out of it.”

A progressive disease with no cure leaves a future that's “a little bit uncertain,” O’Donnell admitted. But he said the story of his Parkinson’s journey has many more chapters to be written.

Meanwhile, even as “Taking on Parkinson’s” went to print last fall, O’Donnell was finishing his first novel.

“Sunrise in the West” is at the pre-editing stage. It’s a Cold War story, replete with spy and FBI intrigue, set around an above-ground test of a hydrogen bomb in July 1957 in southern Colorado.

O’Donnell spent summers in Alamosa as a boy with his grandmother and great aunt. He was on top of a mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Range when the bomb went off.

Writing a novel is one more way of confronting a disease that can literally bring you to your knees.

"I have found," O'Donnell concludes at the end of his Parkinson's book, "that engagement with the world remains a source of inspiration and always an adventure."

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian