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Penn Rehab Program Delivers Left Hook To Parkinson’s

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Joe Ellmer of Wynnewood, was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2012. (Credit: Tim Jimenez)

Joe Ellmer of Wynnewood, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2012. (Credit: Tim Jimenez)

Tim Jimenez Tim Jimenez
Tim Jimenez is a general assignment reporter at KYW Newsradio...
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By Tim Jimenez

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A new program at Pennsylvania Hospital’s Parkinson’s rehab center is looking to give those with the disease a chance to go all 12 rounds in a fight like no other.

A bell rung and it was Joe Ellmer’s turn to start swinging away at the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Rehabilitation Center. The boxing gloves were on, a physical therapist student from Thomas Jefferson University was behind to watch Ellmer’s balance, and a black boxing bag was in front, ready to absorb his punches.

“It’s just fun and you get a feeling of wellness,” Ellmer explained. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in February 2012.

“We had been looking back on when I first had symptoms. It may have been 10 years before that,” he said. Ellmer was one of the first patients to take part in the “Rock Steady Boxing” program now offered at the center. The initial reaction from most people might be to link boxing as a cause for Parkinson’s.

Joellyn Fox, a lead therapist at the center, cited studies showing that intense exercise may slow down the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms.

“Nobody’s putting on any protective helmets, there’s nothing to the head!” Fox said.”We are using boxing bags, jump ropes, shadow boxing, agility tasks, adding some duel tasks with cognition, multi-tasking.”

Rock Steady got its start in 2006 when Scott Newman, a former Indiana prosecutor, at the age of 40, was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s. He started boxing training and credits that for a major improvement in his quality of life. He opened a gym and the program was born.

Rock Steady has since branched out and the center at Pennsylvania Hospital officially became an affiliate.

“It’s a great program, why keep it contained to Indiana?” Fox said. They received a grant from the Parkinson’s Council and Fox and the center’s founding therapist Heather Cianci went to Indianapolis for a three-day training session last August. They used some of that grant money to get boxing equipment and started to test aspects of the program during their regular therapy sessions. Finally, on Wednesday April 30, they had their first Rock Steady class with seven patients

“We got into some stretching. We went into some cardiovascular exercise so I had them do some wall pushups, squats, jumps. And then we went into a whole shadow boxing routine,” Fox said. “So they gloved up. With use of the mirrors we were going through, ‘What is a jab?’ ‘What is a cross?’ ‘What is a hook?’ ‘What is an uppercut?’ and then I challenged them with combos. They were doing a jab-cross-hook-uppercut and repeating that while maintaining the speed to the music which was playing.”

“It’s invigorating,” Ellmer said. The Wynnewood native received some training during his time in the service. He explained that he has had many frustrating moments since his diagnosis.

“You lose your identity. You lose your spontaneity. You lose power,” he said. “I have a young son. I can’t do things I really want to do with him. I’ll never ride a bicycle again.”

But he said those frustrations fade away when he’s punching away at a bag or joking around with some of the friends he made at the rehab center. He is answering the bell and feels as if his comeback is just getting started.

“This gives me the empowerment,” he said. “It’s given me my feeling back. It’s given me my strength back. It’s given me my identity back.”

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