After a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease 10 years ago, Alley, 58, picked up a Ping-Pong paddle—and it changed her life.
Your diagnosis of Parkinson's disease was delayed partly because you'd been injured while playing sports. What finally solved the mystery? The first symptom I noticed was that my foot kept cramping when I was playing tennis. I went to see a podiatrist, who recommended surgery. But my foot didn't improve after the operation, and I developed problems in my wrist, elbow, and knee—all on my left side. I eventually went to a different foot surgeon for a second opinion. When I told him about a tremor in my hand, he said I should see a neurologist.
What happened during the visit with the neurologist? He did a clinical exam, then ordered an MRI to rule out multiple sclerosisor a brain tumor, which I didn't have. He thought I might have Parkinson's disease and recommended that I see a movement disorder specialist. He was right. I was diagnosed with Parkinson's and prescribed medication, and was able to resume playing tennis.
How did you adjust after your symptoms progressed and tennis was harder to play? I fell on the court a few times and was concerned about injuring myself seriously. I was still doing physical therapy about twice a week in the basement of a building, and during one visit I heard stamping noises coming from above. It turned out the offices were in the same place as a table tennis center. And they had classes for people with Parkinson's disease. It was a great discovery.
How has Ping-Pong helped? It makes me feel competent. When I'm playing and moving, no one would ever say I have Parkinson's.
In what other ways has Ping-Pong affected your life? Soon after I started playing, I met a guy who volunteered with the group because he had an interest in helping people with Parkinson's disease and loves Ping-Pong. We made a connection, and he's been very supportive. During lockdown, we played Ping-Pong in his basement almost every night.
You recently were the subject of a documentary film, Gotta Keep Moving, about living with Parkinson's disease. How did that come about? The twin daughters of one of my mother's best friends are documentary filmmakers. The movie chronicles my journey from my various sports injuries to my diagnosis to how I've adapted over the years. It was made in collaboration with the Neurorehabilitation Research Laboratory at Columbia Teachers College and premiered at the first-ever ITTF Parkinson's World Table Tennis Championships, where I won the gold medal in the women's singles tournament. To help pay the people who worked on the film, I held a Ping-Pong party fundraiser.
What did you hope to convey through the film? I wanted to help other people with Parkinson's disease. I am a school social worker, so I'm a counselor by occupation, and I wanted to combine that skill with my experience as a person with a chronic condition. I wanted to help people see that if you exercise and take care of yourself, you'll be okay—and the effort is worth it.
To view the documentary, visit parkinsonslife.eu.
By Mary Bolster