Baker City, Ore. Writer Chooses Laughter Over Parkinson's Disease

02/23/11  Portland, Ore.

Baker City, Ore. Writer Chooses Laughter Over Parkinson's Disease.

Whit Deschner recommends a simple prescription for Parkinson's disease: laughter, and in the highest dose, as many times a day as possible.

Even the photos on the cover of Deschner's 1997 book, "Travels with a Kayak," - a book about kayaking that's sort of not about kayaking - reflects the 53-year-old Baker City, Ore. resident's overwhelmingly lighter side: a Hindu Baba in India, a Buddhist monk in Tibet, a British police officer in Wales, a cattle rancher in Eastern Oregon. Each is holding a kayak paddle.

Parkinson's disease, says Deschner, who was diagnosed in 2000, "is like another lifestyle. You have to laugh at it. I mean, what's your choice? It can be taken seriously and not seriously at same time. I guess I've always kind of thought a little bit out of the box anyway. I've always had an offbeat look at things."

Take the decidedly outre art competition Deschner has organized as a benefit for Oregon Health & Science University's Parkinson Center of Oregon: a salt lick contest, in which Baker City-area ranchers can enter the saliva-hewn works of the region's finest bovine tongues for cash prizes.

"All entries must be salt blocks licked by cows or other livestock," a promotional flier reads. "Range blocks licked by wildlife will also be permitted. Blocks licked by humans will not be permitted. Licks may also be subject to DNA testing. Blocks with human DNA will be eliminated and offenders banned from future contests."

Adds Deschner, "I don't know if you'd call this a cubist movement or anticubist movement. The cows are more impressionist. The deer are more realistic. They're kind of like the old masters."

Deschner is a featured speaker at "Options and Opportunities: Living Well with PD," the 24th annual symposium for Parkinson's disease patients, their families and health care providers. The event is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Red Lion Hotel on the River, Jantzen Beach, 909 N. Hayden Island Drive, Portland.

This year's symposium will focus on the benefits of exercise, wellness, mind-body medicine and nutrition in Parkinson's disease. There also will be an update on current research. It is presented by the OHSU Parkinson Center of Oregon and the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center's Parkinson's Disease Research, Education and Clinical Care Center (PADRECC).

Deschner, who spent more than two decades as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska's Bristol Bay, will discuss "Living Well 'Whit' PD," in which he'll cover his Parkinson's disease diagnosis and the lifestyle changes he's made since.

"I just want to tell people that they should follow their hobbies, get lost in their desires. I'd like to let people know they can still do them," he says.

The diagnosis, Deschner admits, wasn't easy to hear. "For me, it was really hard to accept. After my diagnosis, I went up (to Alaska) for one more year. I just realized it was time to quit, time to move on and do something," he says. "You're not a normal person anymore. It gives you an excuse to be different, to do what you really want to do."

Deschner threw himself into writing and photography, as well as raising horses on the 160 acres he owns, and "just staying active." And then there's the laughing, which Deschner has found physically therapeutic - it reduces the stress that can trigger a flare-up of shaking that overcomes his left hand. And when he's not shaking, he's not thinking about the disease.

"I just start shaking more when I'm under stress," he says. "I know when I laugh, I'm not shaking. That's a simple way to put it. I think the big part for me is waking up in the morning and the first thing that's not on your mind is 'I have Parkinson's.' You get on with life."

Registration for "Options and Opportunities" is $30 per person and includes lunch. For information, call the Parkinson Center of Oregon at 503 494-9054. Veterans can register at 503 721-1091.