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Former mayor uses boxing to fight his Parkinson's

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/6/2017 Eric Lacy
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LANSING, MI -- The symptoms started over 17 years ago.

First, his hands shook.  

To David Hollister, this was merely an unexpected distraction as the then Lansing mayor worked on his State of the City address and continued negotiations with General Motors to get a new assembly plant built here.

The medical verdict came about two months later: Parkinson's Disease.

"I thought it was a death notice," the now 75-year-old recalled.

Ironically, it gave Hollister more reasons to live. 

After serving the city, Ingham County, state of Michigan, state Legislature, Lansing School District and local community organizations for over 50 years, he's still eager to offer his expertise. 

Battling Parkinson's for 17 years, he does a weekly boxing workout with a small group also stricken with the disease. Their aim is to slow its neuorodegenerative effects by keeping the mind and muscles active. © MATTHEW DAE SMITH/Lansing State Journal Battling Parkinson's for 17 years, he does a weekly boxing workout with a small group also stricken with the disease. Their aim is to slow its neuorodegenerative effects by keeping the mind and muscles active.

But Hollister is also realistic, often contemplating what he physically has left to give. 

The plan, at least for now, is to help Lansing's next mayor transition into the office with his or her staff after Jan. 1. Hollister also is willing to continue as chair of Lansing's Financial Health Team, created by Mayor Virg Bernero. 

While still engaged in city business, Hollister also is focused on a new, more pressing agenda.

At least once week, he fights his disease, literally delivering blows with boxing gloves. 

"You just plow ahead," said Hollister, also a former Eastern High School teacher.  

For someone so politically accomplished, he's now one of an estimated one million people in the U.S. and 10 million worldwide who lives with a disease without a cure. 

Data from the National Parkinson Foundation also estimates about 60,000 new casesof the disease are diagnosed each year. Parkinson's is the second most common neurodegenerative condition after Alzheimer's and, according to the foundation, the 14th leading cause of death in the U.S. 

Hollister pushes himself at the Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club (MAC) in East Lansing so he doesn't have to feel like a victim. 

This is a man who's no stranger to conflict. It's also the same guy who, just this year, offered to be an unpaid mediator for City Council after it struggled for nearly two weeks to select a president. 

Kelli Brumbaugh, a class instructor, said Hollister's push to minimize Parkinson's symptoms is "phenomenal" and follows her philosophy of empowerment through exercise.

“A lot of people are high ups and they feel like they are down low at this point," Brumbaugh said of Parkinson's patients. "It’s a mind game they play with themselves.

"But when they come here they feel like they can take on any battles."

An Aug. 14 class with Hollister and 10 other people with Parkinson's hammered home a no-babying, grinding, sweat-it-out kind of vibe. 

Instead of trying to sway political adversaries as mayor, a state legislator or county commissioner, Hollister bobbed back and forth, glove-covered hands up, ready for attack. 

There were leg kicks, arm swings, lunges, wall sits and a form of circuit training that directed each participant to dish out jabs, upper cuts and body blows at a series of punching bags spread out all over the room. 

When Hollister started the class a few years ago, he struggled to stand up straight. Now in Year 17 of Parkinson's, he's able to stand tall and proudly punch with force.

"You feel like you are in control," Hollister said. 

The class on Aug. 14. fell on the same day Bernero and Council members renamed City Hall the David C. Hollister Lansing City Hall.

It was a long, emotional day. 

When Hollister spoke at the City Hall renaming ceremony, he said tremors affected his speech. 

He powered through the event but left somewhat sad, knowing public speaking engagements will likely have to be scaled back. 

Hollister used to give five to 10 speeches a week, scribbling notes on the back of a 3-by-5 card. 

These days Hollister often dictates speeches to his wife, Christine, who types them out for him in advance.

Said David Hollister of his renaming ceremony speech: "I wanted to do a good job, and I just poured my soul in that." 

The tremors were new, and one of four common Parkinson's symptoms for those affected by the disease.

Others include postural instability or balance issues, slowness of movement and rigidity, stiffness or inflexibility of the limbs.

While the disease can be physically and emotionally taxing, Hollister, in addition to boxing, gets involved in other activities to stay healthy and upbeat. 

Once an avid recreational runner who participated in the occasional road race, he can no longer pound the pavement for extended periods of time.

But strength and balance have improved to the point that half-mile jogs are doable. Bike rides are also feasible. In addition to boxing, the MAC offers Parkinson's patients classes in strength, agility and balance, which Hollister also partakes in. 

Todd Hollister, one of Hollister's three sons, came in town from Connecticut for last month's renaming ceremony and saw firsthand how his dad has helped change attitudes about the disease. 

Minutes after speaking to a reporter at the boxing class the son, 50, was recruited by his father to join in.

After getting taped up and equipped with gloves, they smiled and sparred playfully.

"You don’t know when it’s going to come and go," Todd Hollister said of his father's Parkinson's symptoms. 

Any effort those with Parkinson's can make to promote an active lifestyle is appreciated by national experts who are advocates for awareness.

Jeanne Kirby, a Parkinson's Foundation social worker, said she receives up to 40 calls a day, including several from people with the condition who fear their lives are over. 

Kirby is concerned about an "old school" way of thinking about the disease that can be counterproductive. It's a dated philosophy that says those with the disease should not push themselves too hard.

Misconceptions, paired with denial, are the fiercest enemies. 

"A lot of people don't want to know, but people should not hide it," Kirby said of Parkinson's symptoms. "They should not pretend it's not happening."

Brumbaugh, the class instructor, warns those who have Parkinson's about the effects of inactivity. It can result in locked shoulders, knees and hips. 

A "shriveled up" appearance can also occur due to muscle atrophy, she said.

After six or seven years of exercise, people with Parkinson's, even those who take medication, can quickly regress. 

That's why Brumbaugh finds Hollister's health remarkable. 

“A lot of people at this stage aren’t able to get out of a chair,” Brumbaugh said.  

For years, Hollister said he refused to wear Parkinson's on his sleeve. He didn't want to make a big deal about it. 

Now with an opportunity to inspire others, he's more open to discussing the disease and how he has coped with it. 

If public life is nearing its end, there are other roles to serve. 

No matter what the future holds, Hollister intends to spend more time with family, including seven grandchildren. There's also a family cottage in Reed City.

Make no mistake, though. His permanent residence will stay in Lansing. 

"I'm really pleased that people will even talk to me," said Hollister reflecting on his life. "You're pretty lucky to go 15, 20 years after public life and still keep your reputation in tact." 

There's a therapeutic effect the city gives Hollister, even as he grapples with not necessarily being in what he calls "the middle of the action." 

"I still enjoy running into old people when I was teaching; I enjoy seeing adversaries, telling war stories, just chatting about the good ol' days," he said. "It's very nurturing." 

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