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Free hour-long tennis lessons for people with Parkinson’s disease at Bishop’s Stortford Lawn Tennis Club

Parkinality columnist Julie Walker, of Bishop’s Stortford, writes not about parking, but about living with Parkinson’s disease in her 50s

If you see someone with a gurning facial expression brandishing what looks like a TV remote in one hand and a racquet in the other trying to creep up on a yellow ball, don’t worry. It’s only me attempting to play tennis.

Allow me to explain. There is evidence to say that exercise is one of the few things which might assist in slowing down disease progression. So, under my neurologist’s guidance, I am returning to my quest to find fitness and keep it.

During a chance meeting with the manager of Bishop’s Stortford Lawn Tennis Club, in the back of The Bridge House pub, we discussed inclusive tennis lessons for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) over a few sherbets (not the Dip Dab kind).

As a result of that impromptu chat, the club has gained funding for free tennis lessons for a year. The weekly hour-long lessons are exclusively for people with PD. There are currently a small group of us who attend regularly.

Tennis lessons have gained a new complication for me since my brain surgery with the introduction of the deep brain stimulation (DBS) controller into the mix. For those who have called me the “bionic woman”, the electrodes deep in my brain don’t give me an advantage. DBS doesn’t make me into a superhuman. It simply attempts to “normalise” me.

Parkinality columnist Julie Walker, third from right, at one of the lessons for people with Parkinson's disease at Bishop's Stortford Lawn Tennis Club
Parkinality columnist Julie Walker, third from right, at one of the lessons for people with Parkinson's disease at Bishop's Stortford Lawn Tennis Club

The neurones attempting to zap messages to and from my brain and limbs, to lob and volley, use up my depleting dopamine supplies. Since DBS surgery I have two options, machine and medication, to control my movements. More medication takes time to absorb into my system, reach my brain and I risk the dreaded side-effects. On the other hand, altering the DBS controller has an immediate effect on PD symptoms as the electrodes are already in situ in the brain.

My neurologist has allowed me some flexibility with my programming, so I am currently experimenting with turning up my machine prior to and during a game of tennis. However, increasing the brain stimulation prior to playing often causes my face to turn into a grotesque gurning expression as a result of over stimulating. Although this does have the added benefit of confusing the opposition.

Without medication or stimulation my movements would slow and come to a standstill. As this wouldn’t be conducive to a game of tennis I ensure that I take my new medication regime, now reduced post-operatively, and alter my DBS machine.

Whether powered by medication, machine or both, people with PD tend to benefit from slightly slower play. Therefore walking between shots and allowing the ball two bounces are encouraged.

We have space for a few more players so please come along and have a go. Lessons are held at the club in Cricketfield Lane on a Thursday from 10am to 11am. Anyone sporting a sweatband a la Bjorn Borg will not be turned away but no specialist equipment is required, just comfortable clothes and trainers. The club will lend racquets and balls.

I have been building up to DBS surgery since it was first mentioned when I was diagnosed nearly 11 years ago. Now it is done, what next? DBS is not a cure, I still have PD. Therefore I will still have ample material to continue to moan/rant/make light of a (currently) incurable degenerative disease. Insert preferred expletive.

Ultimately the aim of DBS is to delay the inevitable downward slide into late-stage PD and to enable me to reduce my medication, albeit temporarily, to lessen the debilitating side-effects.

To be honest, late-stage PD scares me and anyone who dares to whisper in my ears symptoms such as incontinence will find me sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting la la la.

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