Trek shines light on Parkinson’s

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A.C. Woolnough, a retired educator and former Sandpoint High School principal, is training for a 58-mile Pass to Pass for Parkinson’s hike, which begins Saturday along the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington. (Courtesy photo)

SANDPOINT — As the time draws near for 68-year-old A.C. Woolnough to hit the trails for a 58-mile hike, the task is a bit “daunting.”

“It sounded easy six months ago, it sounded impossible six or eight weeks ago, but now that I’ve got all my gear and i’ve been training and so forth, I’m hoping, I’m confident, that I can finish,” Woolnough said.

Woolnough, a former Sandpoint High School principal, is hiking with the Pass to Pass for Parkinson’s team from Aug. 26 through Sept. 3 in an effort to drive awareness to the disease, and raise money for Parkinson’s research. The hike is a regional event consisting of one team each year that hikes from one pass to another. This year, the group of seven people and two llamas will begin their trek along the Pacific Crest Trail from Rainy Pass to Suiattle River, Wash.

Since December, Woolnough said his goal has been to walk six miles per day, because the “best and cheapest therapy for Parkinson’s is movement.” During the hike, the team will average seven miles a day with a layover in Stehekin on Monday and Tuesday nights. For the past month, Woolnough has also been training a couple miles each day with his boots and backpack, carrying 22 pounds.

Some of the hikers on the team are “Living large with Parkinson’s,” also called “Parkis,” and a few are “support hikers.” Woolnough is “Living large with Parkinson’s.”

He began to show symptoms, he said, in 2012 while teaching in a small Eskimo village in Shungnak, Alaska. It was about a year before he was fully diagnosed. He has what is called a “tremor-dominant” form of Parkinson’s. There are several motor and nonmotor symptoms associated with the disease, he said, so each person may exhibit different symptoms. The tremor-dominant form is theoretically the slowest progressing and the least likely to lead to dementia, which is very common, Woolnough said.

“So I feel like I have an obligation — I can participate in Pass to Pass, therefore I feel I have an obligation to participate,” he said.

Woolnough also serves as research advocate on the People with Parkinson’s Advisory Council for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. As a research advocate, he can prepare and review grant proposals, participate in the informed consent process and help disseminate the results of a study, he said. He has also participated in 13 studies so far.

Woolnough said he looks at his role as advocacy, education and research. In Bonner County, he said, about 100 people have Parkinson’s, and most people either have a family member or know someone who has it. For the last three years, in February, he has traveled to Washington, D.C., with about 250 people nationwide. The group spends a couple of days training, meeting with senators and representatives, before spending a day on Capitol Hill. Each year he met with Idaho senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Rep. Raul Labrador to promote funding for research through the National Institute of Health.

“Amazingly enough, the Department of Defense has a line item for Parkinson’s research, because of the exposure to environmental toxins and traumatic brain injury, both of which are linked to Parkinson’s,” Woolnough said.

One of the most important aspects of Parkinson’s research, he said, is that there is no definitive test to tell if a person has the disease or not; it is mostly observational. Research efforts are looking for a biomarker to tell if someone has the disease, which could also lead to quicker and more effective treatment.

“So research, to me, is vital and critical,” Woolnough said. “So the fundraising aspect of Pass to Pass is to provide money for research, either through the Michael J. Fox Foundation, or APDA, which is American Parkinson Disease Association. So that aspect is what probably drew me to (Pass to Pass) the most.”

The team’s goal is $20,000 and all of the donations for Pass to Pass go toward that research, Woolnough said. To donate and/or follow the team’s journey, visit passtopass.org. So far, according to the website, more than $5,000 has been raised.

Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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