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After being told she'd Parkinson's, Maura took a big leap into the unknown, first with a skydive - and then a spot of globetrotting

Maura Ward was devastated to learn that she had the progressive disease. But the retired social worker from Kilkeel has found that living life to the full has proved to be the best way of coping with it

By Karen Ireland

Published 19/07/2016

High life: Maura Ward during a skydive
High life: Maura Ward during a skydive
Maura’s adventures have included a trip to Machu Picchu
Maura’s adventures have included exploring the Peruvian sand dunes
Maura’s adventures have included driving a buggy through dunes with son Johnny
Globe trotter: Maura’s adventures have included enjoying refreshments abroad
Reading up: Maura likes to do research on the countries she travels to

If there has ever been an advocate for living every day and making every second count, Maura Ward is it. At 67, the semi-retired educational welfare officer, with her daily trips to the gym, running and cycling regimes would put most of us to shame.

Maura is however, a woman on a mission.

She is on a race against time as she faces the cruel and lonely battle against Parkinson's disease.

"I was diagnosed in 2013," says Maura, who is a divorcee and mother to Aisling (33) and Johnny (32).

"I had suspected it for some time," she recalls, "as I had a shake in my left arm that wasn't going away and people who saw me often noticed it was always there.

"Then when I was out walking or running I realised that my arm wasn't swinging properly. I was also suffering from fatigue which wasn't like me, so I made an appointment to see the GP."

According to Maura, after "ruling everything else out" and seeing a specialist neurologist, she was told that she had Parkinson's.

"The way this illnesses affects me is that I am very stiff, particularly down my left side," she says. "I fumble with buttons and it takes ages to put them in. I am weaker than I was and get tried easily and my balance isn't great."

So what does Maura do? Put her feet up and take it easy like most pensioners suffering from a debilitating illness?

Not likely. She continues to stay fit and active. She goes to the gym every day, which she says helps loosen her up and also generates those mood-lifting endorphins.

She explains: "Going to the gym is also good for socialising and it gets me out of the house and enjoying a bit of crack. I also do a bit of weight training, which helps strengthen the weaker side."

Maura admits that when she was first diagnosed with the news she wasn't quite so positive. "I went through all the stages of grief," she says. "As a social worker I am trained to recognise them, so I knew I was grieving for my old life and what could no longer be. I was in denial at the beginning, then anger, then sadness and then a reluctant acceptance.

"I made jokes about it at the start but that was my way of covering up how I was really feeling. I was hiding behind my fear and anxiety about the future."

A wise and knowledgeable woman, Maura knows that in the future the illness is going to get progressively worse so, for now, she is determined to make the most of every second and to cram as much into every day as possible. This means travelling extensively, something which she documents in her "Geriatric Traveller" blog on Facebook. This has been inspired by her son Johnny, who is a professional travel blogger. To date, he has visited 195 of the 198 countries in the world.

"He is on schedule to visit every country in the world and there are fewer people who have done that than visited space," his proud mum reveals.

Maura tries as much as possible to travel and meet up with her son.

"Before my children were born I used to love to travel a lot and then I just got caught up in the busyness of life.

"Before I was diagnosed, I visited Thailand, China, India and Sri Lanka and Malaysia. I have also been to the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

"After I was diagnosed, my son encouraged me to go to South Korea with him," says Maura, who thinks nothing of packing a bag and taking off around the world. "We also went to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. And I've also been to Tibet, Morocco, and this year I have met Johnny in Afghanistan, Turkey, Eretria and Oman."

And Maura is not finished yet, as she prepares to get a few more stamps on her well-worn passport.

"I plan to go to Hong Kong later this year and hopefully meet up with Johnny in some of the countries he has still to visit," she adds.

So how does she fund her life on the road?

"Well I still work part-time, so I am earning money, but to be honest I travel very cheaply," she says. "I will get the cheapest flight going. I don't care how many stop-overs I have to do, I love travelling and being in different airports is all part of it.

"I take a back pack with me and I stay in hostels. That is some experience and the young people who stay there couldn't be nicer to me. They treat me like their grandmother which is lovely. I also couch surf if I or Johnny know someone in the country we are going to."

Maura adds that she knows this travelling bug won't be a long term thing and that, inevitably, the more severe symptoms of Parkinson's will start to affect her ability to try new adventures.

"Time is finite, so I plan to cram as much into the next few years as possible before the Parkinson's really takes control and I am not able to travel and do the things I love.

"I know as the disease progresses it will leave me incapable of doing these things."

A self-confessed adrenalin junky, Maura reveals how she celebrated her 65th birthday following her diagnosis,

"I decided to jump out of a plane," she laughs. "I did a skydive to raise money for Parkinson's. It was fantastic. As soon as I landed on the ground, I just wanted to go back up and do it again."

And it doesn't stop there. Maura has been sand-boarding in Peru and zip-lining through the volcanoes in Ecquador.

"That was a fantastic experience. I felt so free and like I was flying. It was wonderful for me. I forgot my pain and my stiffness for a few minutes."

For her next adventure, Maura wants to wing walk on a plane.

"This is something I wanted to do and raise money doing but I need to lose about a stone in weight before. As you can't be too heavy to stand on a plane. Losing weight is one of my goals for this year.

"Another is to climb Slieve Donard with Johnny. We were going to do it one other time but I wasn't strong enough but I will do it with him one day.

Maura's fighting spirit in infectious and she refuses to let her illness get her down or stop doing the things she wants to do.

However, she is realistic enough to know - she has a window of time in which all her goals must be achieved.

"I know what my future holds but it is something I won't let myself dwell on or think too much about it. I know what's ahead but I don't need to think about it all the time. I'd rather get on with the things I enjoy while I can."

Maura's travels can be followed on her Facebook - Geriatric Traveller and Johnny's 198 country challenge can be found on Onestep4ward

About Parkinson’s

  • Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological condition
  • People with Parkinson’s don’t have enough of a chemical called dopamine because some nerve cells in their brain have died
  • Without dopamine people can find that their movements become slower so it takes longer to do things
  • The loss of nerve cells in the brain causes the symptoms of the condition to appear
  • There’s currently no cure for Parkinson’s and we don’t yet know why people get the condition
  • One person in every 500 has Parkinson’s. That’s about 127,000 people in the UK
  • Most people who get the disease are aged 50 or over but younger people can get it too

Parkinson’s symptoms

  • Everyone with Parkinson’s has different symptoms
  • The main symptoms of the disease are tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement
  • As well as affecting movement, people with Parkinson’s can find that other issues, such as tiredness, pain, depression and constipation, can have an impact
  • Symptoms and the speed at which the condition develops will differ from one person to the next
  • The symptoms can be controlled using a combination of drugs, therapies and occasionally surgery

Belfast Telegraph

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