Retired university professor looks past adversity

Story and photos by Jessica Gonzales

  • Meet Fred Buchanan, a retired University professor living with Parkinson’s disease.

In his soft yet prideful Scottish accent, Fred Buchanan recites a poem by memory written by his favorite poet, Robert Burns. As he tries to muster the simple words from his lips, he stops and pauses momentarily. He apologizes with a smile, says “Sorry, it’s my Parkinson’s,” as his hands moderately tremble from shaking. “You have your good days and you have your bad days sometimes.”

At 78, Buchanan is one of approximately one million Americans living with Parkinson’s disease, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Sufferers of this neurological disease lack dopamine in the cortex section of their brains that affects basic motor skills. As a result, tremors, rigidness and slow movement are symptoms patients with Parkinson’s often experience. Currently, there is no cure for the disease, only medication or surgery to temporarily relieve and slow down the progression of symptoms.

Retired university Professor Fred Buchanan reads poetry in his home in Salt Lake City.

Buchanan was diagnosed in 1992 after his son noticed tremors in his hand at a concert. He saw a doctor who later diagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease during the same year.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be able to do anything.”

With the help of taking a total of 18 pills, he is able to have around 10 hours of good movement throughout the day. But he still experiences symptoms in his daily routine. Shaking and stiffness have inhibited his movement and he largely has to rely on his wife to help him with simple tasks such as buttoning his collar and sleeves.

“I was independent before but now I’m dependent,” he said. “I just miss the freedom I had.”

Rama Buchanan, his wife of 46 years, takes care of her husband makes sure to help him when he’s struggling and remind him to take his medication. After seeing two of her family members go through Parkinson’s disease, she credits her love and patience to find strength with her husband’s situation.

“Families are forever,” she said. “We do a lot of things together and we help each other. You just take it one day at a time.”

Buchanan, who was born in Steventson, Scotland, moved to Salt Lake City in 1949 with his parents to be closer to family and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After serving a Mormon mission for two years in his native country, Buchanan returned to Salt Lake and was encouraged to attend the University of Utah by a family friend who was a professor there. The inspiration to learn became a pursuit he valued and as he said in a proud voice, “Scratch a Scot and find a scholar.”

After graduating from the University of Utah with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, Buchanan went to Ohio State University where he received his doctorate in 1967. In 1977, he became an associate professor in education studies at the University of Utah. He retired in 2003.

A published scholar and writer, Buchanan has written several academic books and chapters about Scotland and the history of education in Utah. “A Good Time Coming: Mormon Letters to Scotland” and “A History of Education in Utah” feature his academic work from research as a university professor.

Buchanan’s small library in the basement of his home is filled with his academic work, Scottish literature and religious publications that symbolize his love and appreciation for learning.

“I’m so curious about many things,” he said. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who appreciated creativity.”

Buchanan is currently conducting two more projects before his Parkinson’s

Fred Buchanan looks at a picture of his family, who he says has given him strength while suffering through Parkinson's disease.

begins to interfere more with his daily life. His first is to write a book about his wife’s family history that was central to Scottish immigration, primarily to Utah. His second project, with the help of his journal that he’s written in for the past 35 years, is an autobiography for his family and friends to remember him by.

“I like to think that something happens to you after you die,” he said.“But if not, this is what I will have left behind.”

Although his Parkinson’s is an obstacle, Buchanan said he wouldn’t let that get in the way of what he wants to do. With support of his family, friends and his faith, he says that he’ll be able to look past the complications the disease has given him.

“I don’t think God or nature gave it to me as a challenge,” Buchanan said. “But given that I have it, I look at it invariably, except for to take a nice nap in the afternoon.”

Salt Lake County provides haven for Parkinson’s patients

Story and photos by Jessica Gonzales

Every morning, Fred Buchanan, 78, wakes up and takes his medication to prevent and relieve the uncontrollable shaking of his hands and feet. In 1992, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and over the course of 15 hours, he’ll take 18 pills to help alleviate his symptoms.

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Fred Buchanan works on exercises to improve his balance at the Rehabilitation and Wellness Clinic.

For nearly one million Americans nationwide who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD), most are of the aging population. This neurological disease develops in patients due to a lack of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter that aids in the roles of cognition and movement. As time progresses, stages of the disease become more apparent with symptoms including tremors, rigidity and postural instability. There is currently no cure for the disease.

According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, currently one million Americans suffer from the disease and nearly 130 out of 100,000 Americans over 65 will be diagnosed with it every year.

For those suffering from Parkinson’s disease in the Salt Lake Valley, the University of Utah provides information resources for patients and their families. Sylinda Lee is the program coordinator for Utah’s chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association (APDA) Information Center, which devotes its time to finding guidance for patients suffering from the disease and their families. The information center is a haven for those who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and offers a wide array of support groups, referrals to local neurological doctors and physical therapy options.

“Support centers and education helps them to manage their disease better so that they’ll be able to have a better life and quality of life,” Lee said. “As they learn more about their disease, they learn how to deal with it better.”

Through providing educational opportunities for Parkinson’s patients in Utah, Lee believes in focusing on the mental and physical health aspects. Called the “Four-legged stool,” she highlights four attributes that will help ease the symptoms of those going through PD: communication with a medical professional, physical therapy and exercise, a positive attitude and social support. By targeting these elements, namely support among family and friends, Lee believes patients will still be able to lead active and productive lifestyles while living with the disease.

“It’s really healthy for them to get involved,” Lee said. “It helps them contribute and feel like they’re fighting their disease.”

At the University of Utah Rehabilitation Clinic, the Parkinsonism Exercise and Wellness program provides PD patients with physical therapy and strength training exercises. These exercises target balance, strength and mobility to alleviate some of the symptoms many patients experience as a result of having Parkinson’s.

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Parkinson's disease patients exercise at different workout stations at the Rehabilitation and Wellness Clinic.

Jim Ballard is a physical therapist at the program and typically works with five to 10 patients twice a week, most who are 65 and older. While noticing the physical benefits that therapy provides, he says there are social benefits as well.

“The Parkinsonism Exercise and Wellness Program also provides a social and an educational benefit,” Ballard said. “Individuals with PD are able to meet others with the same disease and interact with them on a regular basis.”

Buchanan, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 18 years ago, has participated in the Parkinson’s Wellness Program since 2004. Attending twice a week for approximately one hour, Buchanan credits his overall health to his wife and the physical therapists at the rehabilitation clinic.

“My wife has been very supportive for me over the years,” Buchanan said. “And the staff really puts themselves out to reach our goals. It’s social and we find people that we can relate to.”

Reaching patients and their families is seen as a vital asset for the APDA and its programs. With awareness through newsletters and support groups, the University of Utah and the APDA aim to supply PD patients with the tools they need to continue carrying out their daily activities. Through networking and support, Lee hopes that patients will find a sanctuary among their families and communities.

“Right now there’s no cure, so people don’t have that light at the end of the tunnel,” Lee said. “But what they do have is the ability to really continue to have a quality of life, even if they have the disease.”

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