Dancing with Parkinson's Transforms

December 20, 2013

By Brenna Greene
Class of 2014

SPOKANE, Wash. — Nestled in between the Dussault Apartments and the Music Annex on the west side of Gonzaga's campus, the Theatre and Dance Studio is not well-known. What's going on inside, however, is proving transformative for area residents fighting Parkinson's disease and for the students helping them.

Led by Gonzaga dance Instructor Suzanne Ostersmith, assisted by dance students, Gonzaga's Dance for Parkinson's program is in its fourth year of offering classes designed to help Parkinson's patients live more comfortably and independently through healing stretch and dance movements to improve patients' muscle strength.

The program's impact on patients is evident to student-volunteer Diana Fisher.

"The movement really helps them and they're actually more stable, more still, and less shaky," Fisher said. "It's really cool."

Beyond the obvious benefit to patients, the program is clearly changing the students.

For senior Hannah Wentz, Dance for Parkinson's has helped put a face on an illness that few college students would otherwise consider.

"You hear about these horrible cases of diseases, and yes it can be that, but at the same time they're still people and they still have stories," Wentz said. "They still have day-to-day worries and it makes it more real. They're still just people and you realize that it (the disease) can happen to anyone."

Fisher agrees, saying the class has been a true eye-opener to what millions of Americans deal with daily.

"They just value everything a lot more. We're in college and we're like, 'Oh, school's so hard.' Most of us aren't going through something like this. So it's nice to have to have the perspective, and it makes you think more about everything."

According to the Parkinson's Resource Center in Spokane, which supports this program, up to 1 million Americans live with the disease, more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Ostersmith has added two additional classes a month this year to meet the growing demand. Student-intern Halle Goodwin is working to expand the program's reach even more.

"I have been working through doctors' offices to make sure that they can refer their patients to it," Goodwin said. "I think it would be really cool if every neurologist who deals with Parkinson's patients could come in and take the class."

Then, Goodwin said, the doctors would plainly see the tremendous benefits the classes provide for patients.

The students clearly enjoy the rich opportunity to help others while growing in empathy and wisdom.