But getting there wasn’t always easy. What Nelson refers to as the ‘beginning of the darkness’ began in May 2002 with a twitching thumb. An increasing tremor in his left hand was followed by the inability to move his arm properly. This, in turn, threw off his gait and he found himself stumbling. His sleep became disturbed.
He recalls the dark days of diagnosis. “It was like being kicked over and over. The blows just took your breath away.” A successful teacher and athlete, Nelson left his teaching role and withdrew from activities he had enjoyed for years. Depression was setting in.
A chance meeting and a harmonica changed all that and gave Nelson the strength he needed to begin to manage his situation. He began volunteering at Headwaters Hospital (where he still is today, working as a patient escort), and there he met Hal, a fellow blues harmonica player, whom Nelson describes as ‘a dynamic 80 going on 40.’
Their friendship grew and they began jamming together. It was Hal who convinced Nelson to start performing, something which continues to this day. They were known together as ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ Nelson has learned to adapt to the roadblocks he encounters. Sometimes he may use a neck rack or harmonica holder when his hands refuse to cooperate.
In 2013, Nelson published Shaking Hands, a chronicle of his inspirational and amazing journey – one he calls a “road-map to guide family and friends whose lives are indelibly altered by this disease.” Since that time Nelson has been busy speaking at support groups and schools, and he was interviewed on Rogers Cable. He is back on the road, heading to Montreal to speak at a support group in Dorval, and then presenting a workshop at the Provincial Association of Teachers Convention.
For Nelson, his finest moment was in June 2014. A competitive weightlifter for over 21 years, Nelson wanted to remain in shape and continue to compete. The effects of Parkinson’s and the challenges it presents made Nelson realize he had to think differently about how and when he trained. However, not training was never an option, and he developed a plan that worked. Nelson took home the provincial record for his age group, squatting a record 264 pounds. He matched the deadlifting record of 248 pounds and broke the 3-lift total record.
His advice to those beginning this journey: “Get a good neurologist. Shop around if you have to and find one who is willing to get to know you and work with you. Do your research on Parkinson’s and be clear on what your options are. Understand that the disease progresses; it doesn’t get better. I think understanding this helps to prepare you for changes that do follow. Have a goal for each day. Plan to do something you want to do and follow through on it. Even if you don’t succeed completely, you have won the battle because you attempted something. Just keep doing!