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Tennis nets benefits for player with Parkinson's

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  • | 5:00 a.m. March 9, 2011
Dave Garelick plays tennis once a week at the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center and says he feels "uplifted" by his lessons.
Dave Garelick plays tennis once a week at the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center and says he feels "uplifted" by his lessons.
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Dave Garelick is known for his forehand shot.

He played on his high school tennis team in Brookline, Mass. As an adult, he played seven days a week with a group known as the “Early Birds” because they met at 6:30 a.m. sharp.

Garelick was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological disease that results in tremors and difficulty with movement and coordination, nearly 20 years ago, but the forehand shot is still his master move. He proves it every Thursday, when he and his wife, Judith, have their tennis lesson with Longboat Key Public Tennis Center pro Dave Sparks.

On a recent Thursday, Garelick walked to the court without his walker but with help from his wife and home-health aide Judy Albert. He clutched his racket in his left hand, and Sparks went to the opposite side of the net.

“All right man,” Sparks said, tossing a ball in the air. “Let’s see that forehand.”

Garelick hit a dozen balls with his racket; many of the few that he didn’t hit, he caught with his right hand, a testament to his natural hand-eye coordination.

According to Judith Garelick, when the weather is bad and her husband doesn’t have his weekly tennis lesson, it shows in his movement. He’s more rigid and stiff and has trouble stretching his legs. He takes tiny, shuffle-like steps.

“The more physical activity you have of a vigorous nature for Parkinson’s patients, the more able you are to do regular movements,” Judith Garelick said.

But tennis lessons benefit her husband in another way.

“The tennis lessons help him retain a sense of his former self,” she said. “He feels much more upbeat.”

Judith Garelick remembers a book she read in the early 1990s that stated that medication was the only treatment option for Parkinson’s disease. Diet and exercise, the book said, were inconsequential. At the time, Dave Garelick, a retired physics professor who taught at Northeastern University, in Boston,
continued his regular tennis matches because he enjoyed the sport. Medication was effective in treating his symptoms. But in 2004, he was forced to reduce his dosage because of side effects, which significantly reduced his mobility. Because Garelick could no longer participate in regular tennis games, the Garelicks began taking lessons four years ago during winters on Longboat Key with former Tennis Center pro Del Schoenberg and started taking lessons with Sparks in January.

Recently, according to Judith Garelick, researchers began to suggest the potential benefits of vigorous exercise for Parkinson’s patients — the research only confirmed what the Garelicks had found through personal experience. But, although Garelick does other forms of activity, such as water exercise, along with a yoga-dance program in Boston, Judith Garelick sees special benefits in tennis. Every day, she and her husband do a series of exercises designed for Parkinson’s patients that require the patient to move his or her legs from side to side and step front and back. The movements, she said, are similar to those in tennis.

“Inadvertently, by playing tennis, we’ve been doing movements that benefit Parkinson’s patients,” she said.

Judith Garelick said that her husband benefits from the expertise of a pro such as Sparks. Sparks can position the ball with precision and place the ball in such a way that a player with a medical condition is able to hit it without falling. But Sparks also makes Thursday sessions something that both Garelicks look forward to each week.

“He is so kind and so enthusiastic,” Judith Garelick said. “Dave makes us feel very special.”

Sparks said that working with the Garelicks is rewarding for him, as well.

“When the ball comes toward him and he takes that swing, it’s just amazing,” he said.

Garelick said that he feels tired at the end of a tennis session, but he also feels “uplifted.”

After a break at the end of his recent Thursday session, Garelick looked like he might be too tired to finish the last 10 minutes of his tennis lesson.

But, the tiredness was no match for Garelick’s determination.

Using his walker, he returned to the court.

And there he spent the next 10 minutes connecting with ball after ball, showing off his steady forehand.

Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]



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