Parkinson's patient fights disease with magic and music

Battling Parkinson's with magic and music
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Battling Parkinson's with magic and music 01:32

Story highlights

  • Richard Horn, 70, has Parkinson's disease
  • Parkinson's is a progressive motor system disorder that can cause a gradual loss of movement
  • Horn thought he would have to give up his passions: magic, music and woodworking

Richard Horn is a professor emeritus of physiology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2010. The opinions in this article are his.

Philadelphia (CNN)For the last decade of my father's life, his hands shook uncontrollably. Normal activities like eating and reading the newspaper were challenging. I don't know whether his tremors were caused by Parkinson's disease. He didn't have any of the other typical symptoms, like difficulty initiating movements or shuffling while walking. His doctors thought he had so-called intentional tremors, which are often less problematic than Parkinsonian tremors.

When my hands started to shake, about seven years ago, I thought that I also had intentional tremors. Eventually, however, I expressed unambiguous symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
Richard Horn, second from right, with brothers Walter and Paul and their father, Selig.
The diagnosis in 2010 was devastating to me.
    I had recently retired as a researcher and teacher in the Physiology Department of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and I was quite excited about devoting more time to music, magic and woodworking. I was passionately engaged in these activities when the disease crept up on me.
    The definitive diagnosis dropped on me like the sword of Damocles. At that moment in my life, I was infatuated with flashy technique, both in card manipulation and in playing jazz. So when I began to lose coordination, I saw all of the beauty of music and magic being taken away from me.
    That's about the time when I discovered inspiring stories of magicians who overcame various health obstacles. Richard Turner, for example, got scarlet fever when he was 9 years old and a few years later became totally blind. Nevertheless, he is now one of best card handlers on the planet. Another example is the British magician Wayne Dobson, who contracted multiple sclerosis at age 29. He has continued his career even from a wheelchair.
    Amazingly, Turner and Dobson's magic became even better after they received their diagnoses. I learned from their stories that poetry and artistry, not fast hands, drive magic. I learned that magic comes from inside you, not from technical skills.
    The challenge for me is to create beautiful magic, music and woodworking without depending as much on my diminishing manual dexterity. I discovered, especially for magic, that the dreaded diagnosis actually improved my ability to relate personally to my audiences, and that greatly enhanced their enjoyment. To this end, I am gradually removing the tricks that use a lot of difficult sleight-of-hand from my repertoire.
    I also discovered the more I use my hands, the less problem I have with tremors, which gives me more incentive to continue practicing both magic and music. The fringe benefit is this practice also seems to slow the progress of the disease.
    Horn performs magic at a corporate tailgate party before a Philadelphia Phillies game in 2014.
    I learned from my neurologist, and from reading information online, that exercise is one of the best ways to slow the course of the disease. And in fact, I have developed a life rich with vigorous exercise that includes tai chi, rapid walking, regular calisthenics and even "Rock Steady Boxing," an exercise program designed specifically for Parkinson's patients.
    In some ways, I am healthier now than I have ever been.
    Nevertheless, the disease has had several negative consequences. For example, I can no longer drive a car safely and therefore had to relinquish my driver's license, making transportation problematic. My balance also keeps getting worse. One of the most annoying symptoms is that my previously expressive face is blank most of the time, and people tell me that I look bored, even when I am playing music that I love.
    A more subtle effect of the disease is that many of the things that were trivially easy to do, like tying my shoes, now require conscious effort, which means I can rarely escape the perception that I am an invalid. What makes this all worse is that this disease is both incurable and degenerative. Whatever symptoms I have now will get worse.
    All I can do is try my best to slow down the process using whatever tools are available at the moment. I am confident that Parkinson's disease will be eventually be cured, but the cure will probably be too late for me.