Pic © Patrick Boyd Photography
Last Christmas Yvonne Albie sat alone in her flat with only her cat for company and a family-sized roast chicken to eat. It wasn’t intentional – she’d been unable to travel to family celebrations after winter floods hit the railways. But her circumstances matched her mood.
Out of the blue, three months earlier, she’d been given the devastating news that she had Parkinson’s. “It wasn’t how I’d planned to spend Christmas,” she admits. “But in a way I believe it was meant to be. I needed that time to sit, think and come to terms with it.”
Always super fit, she’d gone to the gym five times a week to stay in shape for her job as a fitting model. She'd stand for hours on end while fashion designers and dressmakers tried their garments on her.
The first major sign that something was wrong came on a holiday in March last year when her left foot suddenly froze to the floor and she couldn’t put her flip flop on. A keen amateur writer, she’d also noticed it was becoming a struggle to move her hand across a page and difficult to knit scarves to raise money for a local animal home.
Thinking she must have a trapped nerve affecting her left arm, she booked an appointment with her GP. “I went to the doctors at 8.30am and by 10am I was in hospital having a brain scan as a brain tumour was originally suspected,” she recalls.
Confident it wasn’t, doctors sent her home and an appointment was made to see a neurologist. “I didn’t know anybody with Parkinson’s, but it suddenly popped into my head ‘you have got Parkinson’s’.
“I went to a local bookshop, took a deep breath and found a medical book of symptoms. The frozen foot was a classic but there were others – the shaking and my left arm moving of its own accord. I just knew.”
After a scan to measure chemical levels in her brain, Yvonne, now 57, faced a neurologist in September last year to be told her self-diagnosis was correct. “I must have been in shock because I started laughing while my mum Thelma (81) and sister Diane (56) who’d come with me started crying,” she adds.
But back home, Yvonne became frightened and angry. Within days she had also split up with her partner. “It was a very traumatic time. I remember one day screaming at my cat, my sister and God! But then I realised I had to make a choice: feel sorry for myself and let Parkinson’s ruin my life or fight back.”
‘Parkinson’s has made me realise what’s really important in life’
Choosing to fight, she admits she initially went into ‘positive overdrive.’ Within a couple of weeks she’d contacted Parkinson’s UK and booked a trip to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money to help find a cure for the condition. And after years of promising to visit her good friend Sheila in Australia, Yvonne managed to find the cash.
In November last year she flew out and climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge to raise £1,000 for the charity. “I’m a true believer that if you want to do something you do it. I am not a scientist; I can’t find a cure for Parkinson’s so I make an effort in other ways.”
This year Yvonne has faced many challenges but says she always finds another way of doing things. “When I could no longer go to the gym I started aqua aerobics. Now I can’t write so I type,” she explains. Last summer, needing a cane to walk, she had to stop working as she was no longer physically able to do her job.
Still determined to tackle Kilimanjaro, she headed off in a party in November and managed to climb 3,850 metres – two thirds of the mountain – raising almost £5,000. “My balance was very poor and I kept falling backwards so I was sent back by the doctor which was very disappointing. But it was an amazing experience and I felt fantastic that I’d really achieved something.”
A highlight of the trip was visiting the deprived Light In Africa orphanage.“Seeing the wonderful work there made me glad to be alive and grateful for what I have,” she says.
This Christmas her gratitude is greater than ever as she looks forward to being with her loving and supportive family in Devon.
Yvonne says: “Lavish Christmases are a thing of the past for us. Now I am no longer working I can’t afford presents, but it doesn’t matter.
“Parkinson’s has taught me what the true spirit of Christmas is all about. It’s made me realise what’s important. I’m surrounded by a close, loving family and wonderful friends who are always there for me. Being together is what matters. If I never felt loved before I do now!”
In the New Year Yvonne has more daredevil plans up her sleeve. “It’s definitely a race against time with Parkinson’s and I want to do as much as I can while I’m still mobile.
“Next year I want to go wing walking and sky diving. I’m still writing and have been shortlisted for an award. I try not to think about the future, but just take everything day by day.”
- Trek China, organised by Parkinson’s UK, takes place from Sept 26 to Oct 6, 2015. See below for contact details.
- Parkinson’s affects more than 127,000 Britons and is caused when certain brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine, controlling movement, begin to die. Symptoms and how quickly they progress are different for everyone, but tremors are the most visible sign of the condition. There’s currently no cure, but drugs and treatments are available to manage many of the symptoms. For more information or support call the charity Parkinson’s UK on 0808 800 0303 or visit www.parkinsons.org.
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