As Jessica Krauser stood in front of a couple dozen colleagues and presented a marketing plan, she noticed her right hand was trembling.
How odd, she thought.
She was used to speaking in front of crowds of hundreds for her job, so with this small group she surely wasn’t nervous. She shrugged it off, but it happened time and again.
Less than a year later, while training for a half marathon in 2018, her calves uncharacteristically cramped, and her right foot ached so badly that her husband had to try to massage away the knots.
Then Krauser noticed she couldn’t spread her toes apart. Finally, while cooking in the kitchen of her family’s Powell home one afternoon, her visiting mother noticed something amiss.
“Why haven’t you used your right arm all day?” Debbie Walcott asked her daughter.
Krauser considered the question carefully before replying, “I don’t know.”
Eventually — following MRIs and neurological tests, a special brain scan to record dopamine levels and a meeting with a neurologist specializing in movement disorders at the Columbus-based OhioHealth system — the diagnosis came on July 19, 2019: Parkinson’s disease.
How could that be? The married mother of twins was just 37 years old. It turns out that what’s known as young-onset Parkinson’s disease, though far from common, is very real.
The Parkinson’s Foundation estimates about 1 million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement and can cause some mild cognitive impairment.
Its hallmarks are rigid and stiff muscles and tremors even at rest. Symptoms generally begin after the age of 60. Young-onset Parkinson’s patients (defined as under 50) represent about 4% of all those diagnosed.
For Krauser, the diagnosis was a relief.
“I knew something was wrong with me, and now I had answers,” the now 39-year-old recalled recently. “I very quickly said to my husband, ‘Well, this is the hand we’ve been dealt, so let’s just do this.’”
She has since thrown her energies into exercise to keep her tense, stiff and tired body moving. She educates herself and others about the disease, raises money for research, and spreads the gospel that Parkinson’s (at any age) is not a death sentence.
An inaugural 5KFORJK will take place at 12:30 Sunday at Liberty Park South in Powell to raise money directly for Parkinson’s research through the Michael J. Fox Foundation. (Fox is a public face of young-onset Parkinson’s, diagnosed at age 29.)
The goal of Krauser and her friends and family this year was to this attract 500 runners and raise $50,000. By Thursday, the event had more than 400 registered and donations already had topped $70,000.
She is working through the paperwork to form a nonprofit, and she is putting herself out as an advocate every chance she gets. It’s something Krauser does for a number of reasons but mostly, she said, to offer hope and lend encouragement to others with the disease.
“Someone hears Parkinson’s and they think about old people stuck alone in their house, unable to move. And they think about death,” she said. “I want them to know you don’t just have to sit on a couch and cry. I have bad days, and I’m always reminded of the disease. It doesn’t go away. But I know I’m doing everything I possibly can to be better.”
Staying active, finding support is key
Dr. Andrea Malone, a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders for the OhioHealth system, diagnosed Krauser and leads her care. Young-onset Parkinson’s, Malone said, brings a unique set of challenges.
“These are patients in their prime working years, many with young families. These patients may already be a caregiver themselves for their kids and maybe even for their own aging parents,” she said. “Treatment requires a multi-disciplinary approach.”
OhioHealth opened a new, $13.5 million Neuroscience Wellness Center earlier this year. It is membership-based and dedicated to those who deal with neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or a stroke.
There, patients find things such as exercise classes specific to their disease; a range of educational, nutritional and emotional support programs; and classes for caregivers.
Read more about the OhioHealth Neuroscience Wellness Center: “It’s just kind of cool.”
Malone said Krauser is an inspiration.
“People like Jessica, once they cope with the diagnosis, they want to give back and support others in the community,” Malone said. “It’s rewarding to see people kind of come full circle.”
Staying positive and living in the moment
It is Monday morning, and Krauser is running late to her 8 o’clock exercise class at her gym. Again.
But to be fair, she is the only one in this class at pDNextSteps — a gym in Dublin that’s specifically for those with Parkinson’s — who must first get their young children (11-year-old twins Ben and Kate, in her case) off to school first.
Classes some days are strength training, stretching and balance, but Monday’s was more challenging, with exercises that also engaged the mind. Melissa Carlson, the personal trainer who owns the gym, said such activities that require multi-tasking are critical for those with Parkinson’s.
“We give them a safe space here to practice challenges like those they’ll navigate in the real world,” Carlson said. “Think about when you’re shopping at the grocery and holding a list and looking up at a shelf. You don’t want to lose your balance.”
In her own words: Leader of “Delay the Disease” class missed people during pandemic
Since cutting her job as a marketer for a pharmaceutical consulting company in Powell back to part-time to focus on her family and healthy habits, Krauser started working out in group classes six mornings a week here and takes a boxing class for Parkinson’s patients at a gym closer to her home every Wednesday.
She said the exercise — coupled with a new medicine regimen — has helped to slow and ease her symptoms. And she wants others to know they are capable of the same improvements with daily dedication to moving.
Once her nonprofit is up and running, she hopes to, among other things, help sponsor those who otherwise couldn’t afford exercise. Belonging to a supportive community means everything, she said.
“I’ve met such incredible people, and being around them helps me so much,” Krauser said. “I want everyone with Parkinson’s to live like that and experience it that way.”
This diagnosis, and the commitment to staying active and healthy, has helped the whole family to appreciate life’s blessings and live in the moment, said Derek Krauser, Jessica’s husband of 15 years.
“Jess sets the tone and culture in this family, and she’s never once asked, ‘Why us?” he said. “Her positivity and courage in this is contagious.”
The Good Life
Twice a month, we profile a central Ohioan (or a group of central Ohioans) whose actions make the world a better place.