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February 9, 2012
When I hear the words “ping pong” I immediately think of the game I played with my friend in her family’s rec room when we were in grade school. Playing it was so much fun as a 5th grader, but this week, I got schooled on the game. And now, I’m even more interested in it than I was back then. My lesson this week came from Frank Bertrand, a Springfield man who uses ping pong as therapy against a condition he battles every day.
I met Frank through my dad. Now retired and no longer able to play racquetball like he used to, my father has started playing ping pong, or table tennis. Every week, like clockwork, he meets up with a group of guys at his health club. Frank is one of those guys. Frank was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 13 years ago.
When someone has Parkinson’s, there’s a loss of dopamine in the brain. Without dopamine, the brain doesn’t send signals to the muscles, so they don’t work right.
That can create stiffness, difficulty walking, and shaking. It’s the tremors that most people associate with Parkinson’s, but symptoms can vary.
In Frank’s case, he has what’s described as “early onset”. He doesn’t have the shaking.
When I met him he explained, “I’ve got a significant degree of slowness and more indicators of mild cognitive impairment and rigidity in my body.” Frank says every day is a challenge, but he believes he’s been able to slow the progression of Parkinson’s by playing ping pong 5-6 times a week. Socially, it’s great for him and there seems to be physical and mental benefits as well.
“The rapid decision-making, the ball coming back and forth with some force and frequency, you know, it doesn’t take long between hits,” Frank tells me. “You’ve got to make decisions to move, to reach, to stretch, to decide how hard or how soft and all of these calculations seem to employ the section of the brain that tells us what to do in our body.”
Frank has even encouraged other people with Parkinson’s to pick up the game, and they continue to play weekly because, simply put, ping pong makes them feel better. When I looked for similar stories online, I found plenty of them. People with Parkinson’s across the nation are using ping pong as a form of therapy. One man even said he thinks the game makes the positive effects of his medications last longer.
Frank does have to be careful. Because of the Parkinson’s, he can lose his balance more easily, so he’s careful not to reach too far one way or the other for the ball. However, at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he’s got a longer reach than most people, so that’s not too much of a problem.
Ping Pong is really a game for anyone. This summer we will see some of the best in the world in action at the Olympic Games in London. There are also local clubs that encourage anyone to give the game a try. Lane County’s Table Tennis Club is called “Blazing Paddles”. You’ll find information on them at www.lanetabletennis.net.
Frank knows there’s no way to stop the progression of his Parkinson’s, but that doesn’t mean he has to give into it.
He says he’ll keep playing ping pong for as long as he can stand behind the table and swing a paddle.
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