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Parkinson’s disease does not mean living with limits

Rich Clifford, former NASA astronaut and Parkinson’s disease patient

After three space flights and 665 logged space hours as a NASA astronaut, I’ve learned there are no limitations beyond those you place on yourself. This mindset didn’t just help me succeed in my career. It also became a critical element of my ability to move forward when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than 20 years ago.

Prior to my diagnosis, staying healthy and fit was a high priority for me—not just as an astronaut tasked with successfully carrying out key procedures during space missions, but also as a competitive racquetball player—and I routinely saw my doctor for annual flight physicals to ensure I stayed in peak condition. During one of these physicals, my life changed completely.

Rich Clifford

I had been experiencing limpness in my right arm—something I attributed to a racquetball injury—and asked the flight surgeon after my exam if I could have an orthopedic surgeon look at my shoulder. When I explained my symptoms, however, the flight surgeon seemed alarmed and informed me that I needed to see a neurologist immediately. Still assuming this was a mere sports injury, I was shocked when the neurologist informed me I had Parkinson’s disease (PD).

The news seemed incompatible with the fact that my only symptom was the limpness in my arm when I walked. I didn’t want to believe it. But tests ruled out all other possibilities, confirming the truth: I had PD, a degenerative neurological disease that progresses over time to impair physical movement. Despite the thoughts that began flying through my head as I learned about the condition, I was determined not to let it affect my outlook.

After my diagnosis, I started a treatment routine designed to help manage the progression of the disease, and soon after, I began to prepare for what some may have considered impossible. However, I saw no limitations to what I could do just because I had PD, and I asked my superiors if I could continue to fly to space.

Rich Clifford

I am profoundly grateful for their decision to say yes. Keeping my PD a secret between myself, my NASA flight surgeons, senior NASA management and my family, I was ultimately granted return-to-flight status under the condition that I would be watched closely by the flight surgeons. I was subsequently assigned to the member crew of space flight STS-76 and given the opportunity to perform the planned spacewalk during the flight—something I had prepared for extensively and was determined to accomplish. Not only was the mission highly successful, but I felt such a sense of pride in my own personal journey leading up to the flight, knowing I had not let PD get in the way of accomplishing my goals.

It has been 24 years since my diagnosis, and I can tell you Parkinson’s is not the end of your life.

Thanks to my medical team and advances in PD research and treatment, my disease has progressed, but its acceleration has followed a low ramp. I’m forever grateful to the researchers who tirelessly work to change the prognosis for people like me living with PD. It’s because of them that I have been able to continue living my life without limitations.   

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