Local hospital is helping patients delay Parkinson’s symptoms

St. Mary Medical Center is one of the few locations statewide to offer Rock Steady Boxing, which aims to slow the progression of the incurable disease

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Building strength: Every week, 82-year-old Joe Marino attends Rock Steady Boxing, a program that helps slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. It takes place at St. Mary’s Wellness Center in Langhorne. Source: Angelica Flynn

Two years ago, on a seemingly normal day adventuring around Bucks County with his grandson, Joe Marino’s life changed forever.

Upon getting out of the car to bid the boy “goodbye,” Marino tripped and fell onto the concrete sidewalk. Though he required some patching up and physical therapy at Langhorne’s St. Mary Medical Center, he didn’t think his injuries were serious. Nor did he think his fall was caused by anything more than a lack of attention.

This was Marino’s mindset even when his trainer asked if he had been to a neurologist.

“I sort of ducked it, put it in the back of my head,” he said.

But several days later, Marino began seeing double. As he sat in the eye doctor’s chair, he was asked the same question — “Have you seen a neurologist?” This time, he listened. After a number of tests and brain scans, Marino was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a motor system disorder resulting from a loss of dopamine-producing brain cells.

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed each year, while more than 10 million people worldwide live with the disease. Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, and no standard care plan exists as therapies may vary for each person depending on his or her symptoms.

Despite these striking statistics, 82-year-old Marino isn’t throwing in the towel just yet. Every Tuesday from 1 to 2 p.m. at St. Mary’s Wellness Center, he diligently attends Rock Steady Boxing, a program that helps slow the progression of the disability. St. Mary is one of the few hospital-based locations statewide to offer the classes, which launched in fall 2018 and are led by medically-trained fitness specialists.

Ultimately, Rock Steady Boxing enables people with Parkinson’s disease to fight their illness by providing non-contact, boxing-style fitness programs that work to improve quality of life, as well as build a sense of efficacy and self-worth.

“We were looking for opportunities to give people something to do after the therapy process was over to maintain a lot of the gains they had made,” said Melissa Keany, an occupational therapist at St. Mary and co-instructor of Rock Steady. “The outcomes have been excellent. It’s really been a way for people to be motivated, make sure they keep up with mobility, and it gives them a little bit of power to maintain their function and control over the disease.”

A typical class begins with a warm-up, followed by varied exercises designed to mitigate symptoms such as tremors or trembling, stiffness of limbs, slowness of movement, slurred speech and impaired coordination. This is done through balance and flexibility work, jumping rope, weightlifting, conversations and, of course, boxing.

For Marino, his favorite part of Rock Steady is the chance to take a few swings at Keany and the other instructors.

“We just bang away at them,” he said with a laugh.

Keany takes it all in good stride, referring to Marino as the “mayor” of Rock Steady.

“He’s good at maintaining the energy in the class so that people feel like they’re having a good time,” she said. “We have them pick out music they like, which turns into a dance party. It’s a good crowd and a lot of them are also involved in our support group at St. Mary. So it’s just another way they can connect, and that caregivers can connect, too. We’re trying to facilitate as much as possible having a good support network for everybody.”

Marino echoed her sentiment, explaining how the Rock Steady class has become a tight-knit community.

“We’re all really gung ho on it because you have fun. Usually, with the regular exercises, it’s one-on-one or by yourself. This is a group of, in our case, six, all having the same issues,” he said. “People just really let themselves go and they enjoy themselves.”

When Marino enrolled in Rock Steady, he asked one thing of his trainers — to keep him out of a wheelchair until his grandchildren are in college. In Keany’s opinion, it’s possible his dream will become reality.

“We can’t prevent the progress of the disease. It is a progressive disease that’s going to happen. But research shows that exercise in particular is one of the best ways to manage how much the symptoms affect someone’s life. The more proactive you are about maintaining mobility and flexibility, the less likely it is that those symptoms are going to start to affect your quality of life,” she said.

Classes are offered at the St. Mary Wellness Center, 1201 Langhorne-Newtown Road, Outpatient Building, 2nd Floor, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m. An $80 monthly membership covers the participant, their caregiver or “corner man,” boxing gear and full access to the center. Those interested are evaluated on an individual basis to determine if a lower level class (more one-on-one attention) or upper level class is a better fit.

For information, call 215–710–6861. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com