Land of 10,000 Stories: Parkinson's patient goes from tears to gears

Some people look at a bike trail and see blacktop. Liz Ogren sees freedom.

EDINA, Minn. - Some people look at a bike trail and see blacktop. Liz Ogren sees freedom.

"I started bike riding on the handlebars of my brother's bike when I was about three," Ogren says. When she learned to ride her own bike, the world opened up for young Liz. The feeling has never left her. "I will bike when it's 100 degrees; I will bike when it's 30 degrees."

But six years ago, during a bike trip to Utah, Ogren's life spun 180 degrees.

She'd stopped with her friends to climb some rocks. Sprawled between two rock walls, she froze in place. "I couldn't do what I set my mind to, I couldn't move," she recalls.

It was the first time Ogren admitted to herself something was wrong. "I couldn't move any limbs, I couldn't move my arms, I couldn't move my legs, I was just stuck."

Ogren's riding partners helped her down. Maybe those tremors in her hands weren't just a "quirk," as she'd first convinced herself. "I didn't think it was any big deal," she said looking back. A doctor soon confirmed it was.

"When they said Parkinson's I was like, 'Why would it be Parkinson's, I'm so young?'"

Ogren was 44 years old and an elementary school teacher. She cried herself to sleep the night of her diagnosis and then spent plenty of time on the couch in the days that followed, "thinking, brooding, grieving, wondering."

But bound by a terrible diagnosis, Ogren again found freedom with an old friend: her bicycle.

"For a person with Parkinson's walking can be difficult, but I get on a bike and it is like I don't have Parkinson's," said Ogren during a recent ride on a specialty trike.

Good for her, you might say.

Good for everyone.

Last Saturday Ogren hostedPedal, Roll and Stroll for Parkinson's, the event she founded three years ago to help other Parkinson's patients realize the benefits of exercise, especially on bikes.

"I wanted to pay forward," she says, "what my family and friends had done for me by encouraging me to live my life well, in spite of the Parkinson's."

Alexander Varshavski is one of the beneficiaries of Ogren's vision. The 83-year-old Russian immigrant sat down on a bike Saturday for the first time in years. His daughter Rada stood, smiling, nearby. "Dad has been asking to get on a bike for a couple of years," she said, 'because he read that people with Parkinson's can do that when they can't do other things."

Varshavski'sfirst trip out was on a four wheel bike, with another passenger. But not long after he was pedaling his own trike down one of the trails at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington.

Dr. Martha Nance, the medical director at Struthers Parkinson's Center, says there is ample evidence of the benefits of vigorous exercise for Parkinson's patients. Bicycling is particularly good, she says, because Parkinson's symptoms often occur more strongly on one side of the body than the other. "Bicycling is a wonderful activity because whatever your good side is able to do forces your bad side to do the same activity" Nance said.

Nance cites Ogren as the perfect example of a patient who has taken control of her symptoms through daily exercise, while sharing what she's learned with others. "She's a teacher, so for her to be bring this to other people just fits her to a tee,"

In addition to her annual Pedal, Roll and Stroll event, Ogren has supplied specialty bikes at Williston Fitness Center in Minnetonka for use by Parkinson's patients and others with health issues. Patients who stop by her house in Edina can also find bikes for loan in her garage.

For her efforts, Ogren will be honored by the Davis Phinney Foundation during the organization's "Victory Summit" on September 21st in Eden Prarie.

Orgen, who was forced to give up her teaching job this year, is happy to continue wearing the title. "I'm teaching people that they have a choice about how they live their life," she said.


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