The fight of his life

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By Josh Adams

With as much gusto and strength as he can muster, Terry Laitala pummels a freestanding heavy bag with a near-constant barrage of punches. Like pistons, his arms work his fists back and forth as he circles his target. His face beads with sweat and his breathing gets heavy.

But Laitala doesn't stop punching. If he stops, he could lose the fight.

Laitala has no intention of ever getting in the ring. That doesn't matter. His opponent has come to him. Parkinson's disease, the central nervous system condition that damages your ability to move, was diagnosed 12 years ago. Boxing, he says, has since become critical to maintaining control of his body.

"I was amazed and surprised at how much I loved it," Laitala said.

Every Friday afternoon inside a martial arts studio on the south side of Forest Park, Laitala and his wife, Madge, spend an hour with Damon Hill, a former professional boxer from LaGrange. They met at a YMCA and have been training together for only a month. The class is small. During a recent workout, the couple was joined by a handful of friends and family.

The workout is intense, but no one is fighting harder than Laitala. Parkinson's has already forced him out of his career as a dental technician and cost him his sense of smell. He now helps his wife run a daycare business out of their home.

A few years ago, Laitala and his wife made the trip to Indianapolis to look into a boxing program for Parkinson's patients. That project, called Rock Steady, has received national media attention and participants have raved about the positive impact that exercise has had on their symptoms. There's also camaraderie and a gritty determination to be shared in forcing their joints to unlock and their spasms to subside. The Laitalas, who live in Oak Park, want to create a similar program here.

"They're tough, and they get after it," Anthony Buoniconci said while watching a recent workout. "I wish some of my students were like that."

Buoniconci is the head instructor at Victory Martial Arts Academy in Forest Park. He isn't charging the group to use the gym; it's the first time the company has opened its doors at no charge.

Hill, who also teaches at the YMCA in LaGrange, is paid a nominal wage, but said it was impossible to refuse the couple's request to teach.

"I pray they find a cure," Hill said of the crippling condition that threatens Laitala's mobility.

Laitala and his wife haven't always been so willing to confront Parkinson's head-on, and for years avoided others in the community with the same diagnosis. Though they've long known of a monthly support group at Rush Oak Park Hospital, the Laitalas have been regulars for only a year. Initially, Madge Laitala said, they avoided these meetings out of the fear of being confronted with the future. Wheelchairs, depression and even dementia are not uncommon in Parkinson's patients; Madge Laitala said she wanted no part of that.

"People do not want to see the worst," said Luci Blasucci, a registered nurse at Rush who organizes the support group.

It was about five years ago that the Laitalas contacted a friend of theirs who works as a physical therapist, Donnette Samuels. Laitala's condition was worsening and his body was being forced into a hunched posture. He wasn't able to twist his torso.

Samuels said she knew little about Parkinson's and struggled to find definitive sources that could guide her therapy.

"He was in such bad shape, I didn't know what we were going to do with him," Samuels said.

She started with the basics and worked to straighten Laitala's posture. Over time, the exercises began to work and now Samuels describes her client as "strong as a bull," always smiling and always happy. Following the initial aerobic portion of the boxing class taught by Hill, Samuels offers resistance training and stretching for anyone who's interested.

"We feel like we've stalled his symptoms," Samuels said of the exercise.

Doctors often stress the importance of physical activity as a way to combat Parkinson's disease, according to Dr. Kathleen Shannon, an associate professor of neurological science at Rush University Medical Center. Medical science hasn't exactly figured out why such activity seems to help, but animal testing suggests exercise helps the brain work through the degenerative disease, said Shannon. Rhythmic and repetitive motions, like those in boxing, are believed to be most beneficial. Social interaction is also important.

"It's thought that what exercise does is build a better brain," Shannon said.

Exercise is a common topic for discussion during support group meetings, said Blasucci.

Madge and Terry Laitala are trying to build their upstart boxing class into an empowering network of Parkinson's patients and nonpatients alike.

"It kind of puts everything on an even keel," Terry Laitala said. "Everybody's doing the same exercises."

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