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Former prof. speaks on disease, music

Megan Dillon | Thursday, April 7, 2011

While music provides simple entertainment to many, Dr. Clayton Henderson said it plays a major role in managing his Parkinson’s Disease (PD) when he spoke at LeMans Hall Wednesday.

Henderson was diagnosed with PD in 2001. He retired from the Saint Mary’s department of music in 2005 after 25 years of teaching. He contacted the College hoping to do something to educate students about his disease during Parkinson’s Awareness Month.

As his condition has worsened, Henderson has turned to music for both relief and distraction from the symptoms. In early 2010, a severe episode left him with speech difficulties, and he especially struggled with long pauses between words. Henderson found singing helped him string words together.

Henderson said not just music, but anything that someone is passionate about can help people deal with physical challenges and suffering.

“I like to consider it fooling the brain,” he said. “Any passion a person has that lets them do something without thinking about it can do this. For me it is music.”

Despite the relief afforded him by music, Henderson said the effects of PD, caused by a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine, are severe. Besides tremors, he suffers from insomnia, hallucinations, mood swings, freezing of his arms and hands and slowed speech. While there is medication, people with PD will see an increase and change in symptoms if the dosage is not perfect.

“Even right now as I’m talking to you it’s as if someone is controlling me, and the same when I’m playing,” he said. “I’m conscious of all this but sometimes it’s like I’m not in control of it.”

Henderson played several short excerpts on the piano, mostly slow ballads with one quicker jazz piece, to the amazement of the audience.

Henderson emphasizes the importance of keeping a positive attitude. He considers having PD in some ways a gift and sees finding new ways to deal with it, such as music, a positive challenge.

“I have PD but PD does not have me,” he said. “I have no fear of the future because I don’t have the future. I have today and I’m learning to enjoy today.”