When Allan Bleich was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 45, seven years ago, the New Providence police officer knew he faced an unrelenting disorder.
But he’s approached the experience with an optimism that he has put to use as a motivational speaker and as president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association.
Now he’s leading a statewide effort to increase knowledge of the disease, including pushing for a bill,(S-1173), advancing in the Legislature that would create and fund a public awareness campaign.
“Although at times the progressive and debilitating symptoms are overwhelming, I refuse to give in to Parkinson’s disease and I will not let it defeat me,” Bleich told legislators during a hearing on the bill. “I continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle through exercise and maintain a positive attitude and continue to fight back. Each day I feel it slowly gaining on me. I’m not going down without a fight, but I can’t do it alone and we need your help.”
Parkinson’s disease is the 14th-leading cause of death in the United States, affecting roughly 13 people per 100,000, according to the National Institutes of Health. It affects the central nervous system, leading to difficulty walking, rigidity and tremors, and impairing patients’ ability to speak, swallow and breathe.
“Some patients are erroneously thought to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol due to their movement or gait patterns,” said Bleich, who is 52 and has retired after 25 years as a police officer.
Bleich said yesterday that it’s essential to increase awareness of the disease among both healthcare professionals and first responders like police officers and emergency medical service personnel.
He cited similar experiences he had as a police officer, when officers initially thought that someone experiencing symptoms from diabetes was intoxicated.
“He’s slurring his speech (and) his balance and coordination is off,” Bleich recalled, adding that when he talked with the man, “I’m thinking to myself I don’t think this guy’s intoxicated.”
Many people among the growing number of people younger than 50 who are being diagnosed with Parkinson’s initially have their symptoms misdiagnosed.
The bill would require that, as funding becomes available, the state Department of Health reach out to the public through local boards of health, doctors and hospitals; provide educational programs to healthcare providers about research findings; and teach judicial staff, police officers, firefighters, and social service and EMS providers how to recognize Parkinson’s symptoms and respond to the needs of people with the disease, including through the department website.
The state would work with the American Parkinson Disease Association and the Movement Disorders Center at Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Group and Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to develop the educational materials.
Along with increased knowledge, Bleich also hopes that heightened awareness will lead to more donations for research into the disease, the cause of which remains unknown. He noted that the advocacy of celebrities like Michael J. Fox has increased the amount of funding for research.
Bleich noted that, despite much research, the primary medication used to treat symptoms hasn’t changed since the 1960s.
The bill has received bipartisan support in the Legislature, advancing out of committee in both houses by unanimous votes. The primary Assembly sponsor is Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) and the Senate sponsor is Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex). An earlier version of the bill required that the state produce pamphlets, but that provision has been removed to lower the cost.
Bleich said he’s hopeful that the Senate’s Budget and Appropriations Committee will consider the bill at its next session, paving the way for votes by the entire Legislature.
He said he has used his experience with the disease as a starting point for motivational speeches.
“My talk is more about believing in yourself and self-respect,” said Bleich, who ran six miles on Saturday and coaches a local running club.
Fellow runners, he recalled, said, “I thought you had Parkinson’s disease.
“I said: ‘I do. Keep up.’ ”