March 12, 1996 in City

Teacher Shows Grace In Face Of Parkinson’s

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:column

He can’t sit still.

His legs move. First one, then another.

His feet tap. His hands open and close. He squirms and fidgets in his chair like a preschooler at a Communion service.

Howard Gage, 57, isn’t nervous or bored.

This is the daily torment of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive, debilitating condition that scrambles the brain’s delicate chemical messengers.

Victims of this little-understood disease experience some or all of a witch’s brew of symptoms: tremors, paralysis, odd gait, muscle weakness, pain and fatigue.

Gage has taught math at Whitworth College for 27 years. Few things satisfy the popular professor more than the give-and-take with students at the private Presbyterian school.

He wants to teach until retirement age, but his five-year war with this insidious affliction has put him at a rocky crossroads.

The medicine he must take seven or eight times a day to control the disease is growing less and less effective. The drug’s side effects - all the nervous fidgeting, rapid speech, depression - are becoming worse and worse.

To remain in the classroom, Gage has decided to take a gamble: He will fly to Stockholm, Sweden, as soon as he can book an opening for a risky, controversial operation called a pallidotomy.

“I don’t think anything is clear in life. We all have our crosses to bear,” says Gage, a youthful-looking man who has never spent a day in a hospital. “It’s how you deal with your difficulties that matters.”

A pallidotomy won’t cure Parkinson’s. There is, sadly, no cure. The procedure, hyped recently on network TV news magazines, is an aggressive attempt to relieve symptoms.

There are hospitals in the United States performing pallidotomies, but Gage has settled on Sweden because of its track record of excellence.

The operation demands perfection.

A hole is drilled through the skull. While the patient is awake, a heated probe is carefully inserted to destroy targeted brain cells.

Results can be dramatic.

Tremors vanish. Pain disappears. Lost small motor control returns. Patients sometimes rise from the table when it’s over and go jogging down the hospital halls.

Things can also go horribly wrong. The tiniest miscue will ruin the wrong cells, causing blindness, paralysis, loss of speech or death.

“There’s nervousness, sure,” says Gage, who suffers from lack of muscle control, slowness of motion and stiffness. “I just have to believe that God is opening the right doors.”

If there were a Mr. Whitworth award, Gage would certainly be a contender.

He met his wife, Judy, while attending Whitworth in the late-1950s. Both his children, Brian and Julie, are Whitworth grads.

Life was sweet until about eight years ago, when this man who played pickup basketball games began to lose sleep. He later found it difficult to write on a chalkboard.

After a battery of tests, University of Washington neurologists made the call: He has Parkinson’s - the mysterious disorder shared by evangelist Billy Graham and Attorney General Janet Reno.

Whitworth faculty members and students are inspired by the grace the professor has shown throughout his struggle.

A humble guy, Gage refers to himself as the “quintessential math nerd.” Whitworth President Bill Robinson has a different take, once labeling Gage the “campus guru on what it means to be a Christian.”

Former student Dan Krantz calls Gage one of the finest teachers he’s ever had, a man with “an uncanny knack” for making the complex seem obvious.

But Gage’s real impact, Krantz adds, soars light-years beyond advanced calculus.

“I remember the day he was diagnosed. Halfway through class he looked puzzled, stopped for a moment to tell us what he had found out, asked us to pray with him and continued with his lecture.

“He shared that with us, and I’ll never forget it.”

, DataTimes

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