Pushing past Parkinson's

Vancouver woman vows disease, cancer won't keep her from helping others

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

A neurologist diagnosed Vancouver resident Helen Ramatowski with Parkinson's disease in January 2011. She had diagnosed herself months earlier.

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Parkinson's Resources of Oregon

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How do you exercise outdoors?

  • Go for a run. 10%
  • Take a walk. 61%
  • Ride a bike. 11%
  • Go for a hike. 15%
  • Play a team sport. 3%

72 total votes.

After watching both her mother and brother live with the disease, Ramatowski knew her symptoms were signs of what was to come.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological disease that leads to tremors and difficulty with walking, movement and coordination. There is no cure.

About 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson's disease; an estimated 25,000 people with the disease live in Oregon and Southwest Washington, according to Parkinson's Resources of Oregon.

Ramatowski's first sign came in early 2010 when she noticed what appeared to be a tremor in her left leg. Her physician made a note to keep an eye on her leg.

By late 2010, Ramatowski had a pronounced tremor. Her leg was jumping, keeping her from sleeping. In January 2011, a neurologist confirmed she had Parkinson's disease.

Ramatowski immediately sought support. She turned to the nonprofit Parkinson's Resources of Oregon, which serves nearly 1,000 households in Southwest Washington. The group connected Ramatowski with a support group and movement classes in Vancouver.

Physical exercise, combined with medication, is the most effective way for people with Parkinson's disease to maintain balance, mobility and daily living activities, according to experts.

So Ramatowski got active. She spent hours working out every week, sometimes in the pool, other times in the studio.

"I'm determined not to handle this the way my brother and mother did," Ramatowski said.

They handled the disease like many people with Parkinson's do. They hid.

"Parkinson's is a very isolating disease," said Erin Cozart, development manager for Parkinson's Resources of Oregon. "People with PD tend to get isolated because they don't want to be judged."

"The services we provide get them out of the house, get them engaged in a community where people understand what they're going through," she added.

Those services helped Ramatowski. In return, the 68-year-old has

made it a point to help the nonprofit.

Every year, the nonprofit hosts two major fundraisers: the Sole Support for Parkinson's walk in the fall and the Celebrate Hope gala and auction in the spring.

In 2011, just months after receiving her diagnosis, Ramatowski decided to participate in the Sole Walk and raise money for the organization. She brought in nearly $12,000.

"Helen just kind of surprised us two years ago," Cozart said.

The nonprofit's staff had never heard of Ramatowski and yet, there she was, raising more money than anyone else in Clark County.

In 2012, Ramatowski continued her fundraising efforts, bringing in another $5,000 for Clark County's first Sole Support walk. Health problems, however, kept Ramatowski from actually participating in the September walk.

In October, Ramatowski was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and, after infections and other setbacks, finally completed radiation treatment in April.

Despite the diagnosis, Ramatowski volunteered to help with fundraising efforts for the April 26 Celebrate Hope gala and auction.

When fatigue from radiation prevented Ramatowski from visiting businesses to ask for donations, she started sending emails. She reached out to performing arts groups all over Oregon and Washington. Nobody turned her down.

"I was partly doing it to help, partly to distract myself from what was happening," Ramatowski said.

Last month's event raised $187,000, Cozart said. The nonprofit's annual operating budget is about $700,000, she said.

Ramatowski plans to take this summer off from fundraising. She wants to enjoy the warm weather and refocus on her own physical fitness now that she's completed cancer treatment.

Still, Ramatowski is already signed up to participate in the next fundraiser -- Vancouver's Sole Support walk, scheduled for Sept. 14 in Esther Short Park. The reason why, she said, is simple.

"If you're having a tough time, somebody else always has a tougher time," Ramatowski said. "Help them."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com