Julia Ward ’16

I tried to climb the rope to no avail. My cousin Ellie tried to climb the rope; even Jay, the strongest of us, could not manage to climb it. We were all under the age of twelve, we had no muscles but we were determined to conquer the daring rope, to reach the daunting branch.

As we stared with wonder up at the tree, I remember Mike Westphal, a long-time family friend, approaching us. We giggled with disbelief while he told us he could climb up the rope. How was a fifty-year-old man going to do that? As Mike pulled himself deftly up the rope, we stood dumbfounded, our jaws dropped. I remember how visibly impressed Jay was when he asked Mike for the secret to the rope. Mike said he had no special powers, that in fact, he had a disease that affected his ability to climb. It was the first time I learned that he had Parkinson’s disease. Even with his handicap, he said that his determination because of our expectant faces, got him to the top of the tree.

I never really knew what Parkinson’s was. I’ve known Mike since I was a baby, yet he never showed the burden of his life-threatening disease. I only see Mike once a year when I go to a little island in Maine, where Mike lives year round. Each year, he never seemed different, not even slight deteriorations. Maybe his hair turned a little greyer, but there were never any drastic changes, never until a couple summer’s ago. I noticed a startling difference in Mike. He couldn’t control his body, his mind seemed disconnected from his muscles. As I talked to him, his head shook, his legs bent in awkward angles, and his eyes shuffled; inevitably, his Parkinson’s had finally become noticeable.

Years before Mike was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he focused all his attention on running. In high school he could run a 4:17 mile and went on to run for the University of Maine. Even when Parkinson’s started affecting Mike’s life, running still took priority. Last year, he signed up for the island’s annual Marathon, putting his determination and athleticism to the test. Except, he was not running for himself. He was running for Parkinson’s. There is a history of Parkinson’s in his family, his sister Gretchen suffers from it as well. Because of this, he wants to spread awareness. There is not a cure for Parkinson’s, but the future holds promise. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is making headway, where Mike donates all of the money he raises.

When Mike ran in the Great Cranberry Marathon, he supported the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He had no idea what to expect from the race, but the whole island was thrilled he was even attempting such a feat. Mike’s determination did not falter despite the many challenges he faced. It was the same determination I had seen in him eight years before, as a child. The island marathon was like climbing that rope, except the motivation was the pain he saw in his sister’s eyes as she succumbed to the disease, the helplessness he felt as he slowly lost control over his body. Mike hopes that his story has inspired others. He says you do not have to go out and run a marathon, but, instead, venture out in the world and simply, do something you love.

A couple of summers ago, Mike noticed that I ran daily up and down the island. To my surprise, he suggested that I join Tower Hill’s running team. I only ran for fun and to stay in shape, not ever competitively. The next day I was running up a huge hill and saw Mike running past me on the downhill. Instantly I sped up (as to look like I wasn’t dying when I clearly was). I waved at him as I reached the top. Seconds later, I heard feet pounding behind me. I instantly picked up the pace to keep up with Mike. My energy subtly began to drain as Mike told me everything about his running career in high school. I was glad to listen, as I was out of breath, and when I broke off at my driveway I started to really think about running for a team. Everyday Mike must push himself, for him it is simply to hold eye contact with those he talks to, to control his muscles while he drives his car. I decided that running for my track team was a small task. In the spring I joined track and owe it to Mike’s encouragement. Not only has his determination motivated me to join the track team, his dedication and positive attitude have taught me to persist even when you are faced with the toughest of circumstances.

If you want to learn more about Mike’s story, one of his good friends made a short documentary of his running journey..