Arlington man with Parkinson’s discovers healing power of boxing

Posted Monday, Aug. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Punching out Parkinson’s Paulie Ayala’s University of Hard Knocks 6913 W. Camp Bowie Blvd., Suite 141 817-731-4665

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After 40 years of playing the clarinet, 30-year Arlington resident Bruce Hamberlin had to quit because of Parkinson’s disease.

But that was before he learned about the therapeutic powers of boxing. Now he attends former world champion Paulie Ayala’s twice-weekly “Punching out Parkinson’s” training classes, along with 20 others, in Fort Worth.

Although it was still a shock to Hamberlin when he was diagnosed with the disorder on Sept. 17, 2009, he had dealt with progressively worsening motor control.

At first he thought he had carpal tunnel syndrome, but when his co-workers at the postal service began ask him if something was wrong with his back, he realized that his gait was compromised. Later he developed a scary tightness in his throat.

“On hot days I would get in the car and feel like I was going to choke,” he said. “It felt like I was swallowing a golf ball and having no success.”

Hamberlin shares symptoms that many patients with the neurological disorder have — uncontrollable tremors, muscle rigidity, slower movement and balance issues.

“They say you’ve had it for quite some time before you realize you have it,” Hamberlin, 61, said.

One million Americans are living with the disease, and 50,000 to 60,000 cases are diagnosed each year, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. About 4 percent of people with Parkinson’s are diagnosed before their 50th birthday, and men are 11/2 times more likely to have Parkinson’s.

In March a co-worker heard about Ayala’s class and suggested that Hamberlin check it out.

He was hooked when he saw people with the same disease doing box jumps and jumping rope with determination.

“I said, ‘I can’t do that,’ and sure enough in two weeks I was,” Hamberlin said.

Ayala opened the University of Hard Knocks gym in Fort Worth two years ago with the intent to train and manage fighters. But now it’s a place where Parkinson’s patients can work out to regain some control over their bodies and their lives.

Ayala trains each one differently, for free, depending on how the Parkinson’s has progressed. The Fort Worth native said that at first only 25 percent of his participants could step into the ring without help. Now all of them can not only slip their bodies through the ropes but also bob and weave on the canvas.

Hamberlin attends Ayala’s Monday and Wednesday night classes where the hourlong exercises vary from punching bag warmups to foot agility drills around the ring, where participants jog while alternating their feet.

He swears the noncontact boxing class has improved his posture, coordination, energy, strength and stability in his gait.

Dr. Saud Khan, a neurologist at John Peter Smith Hospital, said speech therapy and physical therapy are recommended for people with Parkinson’s, which starts on one side of the body and gradually progresses.

“I think we do have enough evidence as studies show that a boxing program is good for Parkinson’s patients,” Khan said.

Ayala, who said he was looking for a way to satisfy his philanthropic itch after permanently stepping out of the competitive ring in 2004, got the idea to work with Parkinson’s patients when Stacy Christopher came knocking on his door.

A former board member for the Dallas chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association, Christopher was inspired to visit Ayala after hearing about an Indianapolis-based gym founded in 2006.

“I knew I could help,” Ayala said. “Six months later, she came back with more information. We started out with four people.”

There are also plans to expand the program to Dallas and contribute to research on the benefits of boxing training by Dr. Madhavi Thomas, president of the North Texas Movement Disorders Institute.

Ayala and Thomas communicate regularly about what kind of therapy the patients need, and Ayala applies that to his training.

“It’s not just the arms and the legs that it helps. They also get a trunk workout, which is good,” she said. “We have had patients together for almost four years now.”

More than five months after his first class, Hamberlin is now back to playing the clarinet, and he has new friends, too.

“Who would think about starting boxing at 61? But when you’re in the same boat there’s a bunker camaraderie,” he said. “I’ve made some very good friends, dear friends. It’s the high point of my week.”

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792 Twitter:@MonicaNagyFWST

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