Local woman is one of six worldwide to receive surgery

By Julie Fann
star staff

Speaking to Elizabethton Rotary Club members at a luncheon yesterday, Peggy Willocks, former Harold McCormick teacher and principal, described what it's like to live with Parkinson's disease, a debilitating and progressive neurological illness that afflicts 1.5 million U.S. citizens.
   "I miss the fact that at times I can't even bathe myself, especially to shampoo and dry my hair. I wonder if anyone other than someone who has Parkinson's knows what it's like to be a prisoner in your own body," Willocks told the audience at Memorial Presbyterian Church.
   Three years ago, Willocks was one of six people worldwide to undergo experimental surgery to reduce symptoms associated with the illness and the need for large amounts of medication. Until recently, she was forbidden by the FDA from speaking publicly about the surgery.
   "Those who received the surgery improved 50 percent. It's not enough of a sampling to be really optimistic, but it's a start. The next time doctors perform the surgery, 70 or 80 individuals will receive it," she said.
   Parkinson's disease (PD) is caused by a decrease in the level of dopamine produced by the brain. Without enough of the chemical, greater than 80 percent of the neurons located in a portion of the brain die, causing others to become hyperactive. The result is increased motor activity.
   Most people who suffer from PD are diagnosed after age 55. However, a growing number, like Willocks (and celebrities Michael J. Fox and Muhammed Ali), are diagnosed when they are much younger.
   During the surgery, doctors at Emory Medical Center implanted donated retinal cells, which naturally contain dopamine, into the patients' substantia nigra, the portion of the brain which the disease affects.
   "I firmly believe that I would not be able to walk had I not had it done. But I still have 'off periods', times when the medications nor the surgery work," Willocks said.
   Willocks, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease for eight years, explained that most people believe the only symptom or problem associated with PD are tremors, or mild shaking, when, actually, that is just one small aspect of the illness.
   Symptoms of Parkinson's disease, other than tremors, are:
   --Brady Kinesia, or moving in slow motion so that, for example, picking up an object takes time.
   --Muscle rigidity to the point of walking only at a shuffle while bent at the waist.
   --Balance problems resulting in the need for the use of a cane, walker, or wheelchair.
   "Parkinson's is not just a tremor, and feeding yourself is a real challenge. My first symptoms were that my left arm wouldn't swing, and my left pinky twitched," Willocks said.
   Those diagnosed with as many as two of the symptoms have PD. Medication increases the level of dopamine in the brain and relieves symptoms somewhat, however, dopamine is difficult to regulate. Too little dopamine leads to Parkinson's disease; however, too much results in schizophrenia.
   The drugs also have "wearing off" periods and produce side-effects such as hypertension, depression, involuntary movements and tics, and anxiety.
   "My family sees me often, but they're still baffled by the way I can do most anything at times, and then be like an infant at others. I have mood swings due to the medication. Sometimes I just want to go to sleep and never wake up," Willocks said.
   The medication also often causes pain, writhing and twisting of the arms, legs, feet and neck. Also, limbs may jump, shake or flail without warning.
   Willocks encouraged the audience to support legislation that may lead to further research and a cure for Parkinson's disease.
   She said the Department of Defense has access to a certain neurotoxin which, if given in small doses, may help. However, due to the threat of bioterrorism, officials are withholding the chemical.
   Willocks also explained that SNCT (Semantic Nuclear Cell Transfer), commonly referred to as stem cell research, or therapeutic cloning, does not destroy a life because no sperm is involved in the process.
   Stem cell research involves removing the nucleus from a donated unfertilized egg and placing a portion of the person's affected tissue (in this case, brain tissue) inside it. Scientists then administer a shock which produces cell division, or mitosis, until the "egg" becomes a blastocyst, then finally produces a new organ, according to Willocks.
   "Did you notice that sperm is never mentioned in therapeutic cloning? How can you say that that's a life? Yet, we're having all kinds of issues about it," Willocks said.
   In 1997, Peggy Willocks was named Tennessee Principal of the Year. In 1998, Parkinson's disease forced her into retirement. She just recently accepted a position as state support coordinator for the Parkinson's Action Network in Washington, D.C.
   "I really have a good attitude about living with this disease, but it's knowing that it's progressive and that it won't get better that plagues my thoughts," she said.