Boxing with Care: Daughter Finds Purpose Fighting Parkinson’s

By Brandon Killian

Jill Steffey has been around Parkinson’s Disease her whole life.

Her grandfather David Steffey had Parkinson’s Disease. Growing up, Jill watched her grandmother and her aunt as his caregivers.

Now Jill is a caregiver to her father, Reese Steffey, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease as well.

While Parkinson’s is not considered hereditary, family members do have a higher chance of being diagnosed.

In 2002, Reese was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Jill and her family caught it quickly, as they recognized the signs. Reese worked as a mechanical engineer for 40 years until he was forced to retire due to layoffs about five years ago.

“His health has diminished greatly due to surgeries and having to be still. He was very active before, and he was very athletic,” Jill said.

After her parents both had a surgery in 2014, Jill became her parents’ primary caregiver. Jill took off work as a teacher for 14 weeks in order to take care of her parents.

Jill helped her parents with bathing, cooking, cleaning, errands, and doctors visits. When she had to go back to work, she hired her niece to watch her parents while she is at work.

Reese is one of around a million people in the United States who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Reese’s health was not good and he was struggling to get better. He knows it is tough for the whole family.

“Jill took a dive, mentally,” Reese said  in an interview.

Her attitude, perseverance, and other good traits, were fading due to the difficulty of being a caregiver, he said.

“She was, I hate to say this, but dying on the vine,” Reese said.

Jill nodded in agreement: the work of a caregiver challenges one as a person.

In July, Reese and Jill were watching the news and saw a story about Rock Steady in Hopkinsville. They learned that Rock Steady Boxing was a nonprofit organization which helped people with Parkinson’s disease through boxing-based fitness.

They wanted to try it out.

Three days a week the Steffeys would get in the car and make the drive of more than an hour to Hopkinsville, just to give it a shot.

Jill soon saw improvements in her father. He was able to move better than he had in years. He was able to speak better than he had in years.

“I got my dad back,” she said.

The Steffeys could not keep going all the way back to Hopkinsville, but they also couldn’t give up on Reese.

They decided to open up their own Rock Steady boxing in Bowling Green, and Jill was going to run it.

Jill went to Indianapolis for training to become a certified Rock Steady coach.

“That was three days of brutality,” Jill said.

Each day, was half learning in a classroom and half was working in a gym.

“I had a blast and was exhausted,” Jill said.

When she finished her training, Jill and her mother started looking for a place to have their gym.

They called various churches, gyms, and other places to try to find a place. They soon found Live Active, a fitness center for people above the age of 50. Live active allowed them to use their space free of charge.

Since October, Jill’s Rock Steady program has grown to 23 fighters, with more looking to sign up in the future.

The membership quickly became higher than many other Rock Steadys in the surrounding area. People in the Parkinson’s community around Bowling Green came in to participate in the program, and Jill was a main reason why they did.

She did it through personal connection. Jill gets to know each member and she modifies each workout to tailor each person’s need.

“Jill’s is what makes this place special. She makes everyone feel important and like they are a part of her family,” said Maureen McIntyre, another Rock Steady coach.

Jill’s personal touch puts these people in a good place to succeed, even when they come in with bad health.

“We have seen everything from stuttering, to tripping and falling, shuffling of feet, shaking of hands, tremors,”Jill said. “We have a gentleman that can’t walk a straight line. [Now] if you see him out in public, you wouldn’t know he has Parkinson’s.”

***

Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m., Rock Steady gym is open. Jill emphasizes how important it is that people are coming three days a week.

“The Louisville gym only has eight sessions, for six months,” she says with concern.

When the boxers do not work out enough, they don’t get any better, she says.

Jill starts the work out session with prayer. Jill and the other boxers make a circle in the middle of their small gym. They talk about the hardships some of them have faced throughout the week. They also talk about the people who couldn’t make it that day.

Once prayer is over they start a warm up exercise. Their warm up consists of a variety of exercises which tests their balance while stretching. Jill leads the group through the stretches while fellow coach Maureen McIntyre helps.

“Stretching is very important for these people because being able to move is their biggest struggle, and we can’t have anyone getting hurt,” McIntyre said.

After stretching, the group splits into two sections. Half the group goes into the back of the room which contains an assortment of boxing equipment. The other half has many different activities to choose from. These activities change every day. All of them physically challenge their balance, gross motor skills or fine motor skills.

The boxers are all older men and women. Most people who have Parkinson’s do not get their diagnosis until they are in their 50s or even older.

Each boxer has a partner. The less experienced or less skilled boxers pair up with a volunteer trainer and the more experienced boxers pair up with each other.

Queue the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s rock ‘n’ roll.

The boxers put on their gloves and get to work. Jill emphatically jumps into each group encouraging each member and challenging them to push themselves. There are punching bags, speed balls, and battle ropes. Jill likes to put on gloves and punch the same bag, moving it and making it more difficult. She also puts on punching mitts, her boxers punch each mitt repetitively as Jill counts, one, two, three, four…

McIntyre is on the other side of the gym working with the other group. Connect Four and mini billiards are set up to work on their fine motor skills. Cornhole and a mini basketball hoop is set up to work on gross motor skills. A balance beam and a couple balance boards are also set up to work on their balance.

The groups will spend 45 minutes to an hour working from station to station.

Reese works hard on the speed ball. He has to punch for two to three minutes before moving on to the next station.

After the hard work out, the group gets back together to stretch again.

The session ends with awards and a cheer. The awards are two little white paper plates decorated with marker and stickers. Names are written on the plate with the achievement they had that day.

Finally, the whole group comes together, putting all of their hands together for a cheer. “boom, crackle, whistle, pop. Fireworks at night. Left, right, jab, hook. Rock steady does it right. We are rock steady strong. One, two, three, rock steady, rock strong.”

***

Many studies on exercise and Parkinson’s have supported the notion that exercise, emphasizing gross motor movement, balance, core strength, and rhythm, could impact range of motion, flexibility, posture, gait, and activities of daily living.

Studies at Cleveland Clinic, focus on the concept of intense “forced” exercise, and they suggest that certain kinds of exercise may be neuro-protective, meaning they can actually slow disease progression.

Jill is only getting started with Rock Steady. She already has big plans for the future.

Right now, Jill is a full-time teacher. When she retires, Jill plans to become a full-time boxing coach.

“I am going to have day classes, night classes. I am going to live Rock Steady,” Jill said.

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