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Belfast man Patrick Crossan's optimistic approach to his life-changing Parkinson's diagnosis at 50

Champion runner Patrick Crossan (56), a business consultant for BT, lives in west Belfast with wife, Maureen, a civil servant, and their grown-up son and daughter. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at the age of 50, he tells Lisa Smyth about staying fit - and hopeful

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Staying strong: Patrick Crossan

Staying strong: Patrick Crossan

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Comedian Billy Connolly, who also has Parkinson's disease

Comedian Billy Connolly, who also has Parkinson's disease

PA

Staying strong: Patrick Crossan

At 56, Patrick Crossan is probably fitter and stronger than many people half his age. The dedicated athlete has spent his life competing around the world and can even boast about becoming Irish and Scottish 200m and 400m champion in the 50 to 54 age category.

Patrick's achievements are even more remarkable, however, given the fact that he was living with Parkinson's disease when he won the titles.

A degenerative neurological condition, there are up to 40 different symptoms linked to Parkinson's disease, including a tremor, anxiety, hallucinations and dementia.

Patrick, who has been married to Maureen for 25 years and has two grown-up children, Kevin (24) and Therese (20), is no stranger to many of the issues that people with Parkinson's experience - but he has refused to allow the condition to rule his life.

"It's about adapting and making changes to how you do things," he says.

"I was never anxious before this, I was always very outgoing but I would get anxiety now when going out socially.

"I have had to come up with little techniques to overcome that, so if I'm at a party and I feel myself getting anxious, I go for a walk into another room or I go and sit in the car for five minutes and then go back inside.

"I leave the party when I want to, not when Parkinson's wants me to leave."

Patrick, a business consultant with BT, was just 50 when he was diagnosed with the condition.

A keen runner, he had noticed that he was beginning to struggle to keep up pace with the other athletes.

He had also developed a slight twitch in his left arm, but it was only when his Maureen became concerned that he sought advice from a doctor.

"I hadn't been feeling well for a while.

"I had a twitch in my left arm but I thought it was maybe a nervous twitch or something like that," he explains. "I was also having little stumbles where it was like I was falling over an invisible step, but then Maureen noticed the twitch at my 50th birthday party.

"She asked what it was and I told her it was just something that happened every now and then and she insisted that I get it checked out.

"I went to the GP and they did all the normal blood tests and didn't find anything, but he said he would refer me to neurology just to be extra cautious.

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With son Kevin, wife Maureen and daughter Therese

With son Kevin, wife Maureen and daughter Therese

With son Kevin, wife Maureen and daughter Therese

"I was happy enough with that and happy to wait for my appointment, but Maureen asked me if I would wait if it was one of the children who weren't well.

"I had really good cover through work so I was able to go private and I saw someone quite quickly."

Patrick was sent for an MRI which picked up a potential issue with his brain, but further tests were required before a diagnosis could be made.

"I went home and looked up the internet and spent the next six weeks thinking it could be a brain tumour, Parkinson's or motor neurone disease," he adds.

"I haven't looked at the internet since then because you never find anything happy there, even from trusted sources, there are no good news stories.

"I knew a tumour wasn't good because of the very nature of it, I knew about motor neurone disease because unfortunately someone at work had been diagnosed with it, but I knew nothing about Parkinson's.

"When the consultant told me that's what I had, it's not that I was relieved, but it was better than the other two options and my consultant was very straight with me.

"That's what I like about him, he told me about the medication I could take and I asked him if I would have to stop running and he told me, that on the contrary, it would be good if I could keep it going.

"That's what I was most worried about when I found out I had Parkinson's, that I would have to stop running.

"I had been doing it all my life and actually it has kept me going through everything.

"We didn't tell the kids what was happening while I was being tested because they were 17 and 14 at the time and going through their exams.

"But as soon as I was diagnosed, I sat them down and told them and the first thing I told them was that it wasn't fatal.

"The second thing I told them was to not look at the internet, that if they had any questions they were to ask me.

"The last thing I told them was to try and forget about it, that it wasn't anything for them to worry about.

"I try not to worry, Maureen worries about me, but then I sometimes think it is easier for me because I'm in the middle of it."

Despite his optimistic outlook, Patrick has not been immune to the effects of the disease.

He started off taking one tablet a day, explaining that he wanted to take the smallest dose possible.

"I think I'm still quite young to be going on stronger medication," he says.

This helped to address the problems he was experiencing with his balance, but he has developed other issues in the years since his diagnosis.

"My consultant is really good, I get a good 20 minutes with him and he listens to me and then discusses my medication with me," Patrick says.

"I had to stop running 400m last year which was a really big decision for me because it was the first thing I have really lost, but I have kept training which is important as it gives me some control.

"I train with Kevin and he keeps an eye on me to make sure I don't push myself too hard but he also knows what I'm capable of.

"If people ask for something to be lifted they would say I can't do it and Kevin tells them I'm stronger than them."

As Patrick avoids reading about Parkinson's, much of his knowledge of the symptoms has come from his own personal experience.

"I had no idea that night terrors were part of Parkinson's but it turns out that they are and I would have problems with that," he adds.

"Maureen would hear me calling for her to wake me from a dream and that's when she knows that it's bad, they can be very vivid and I can jump about a lot in bed.

"I have a little bit of OCD that I never had before and once I start something, I find it very hard not to finish.

"I try not to start things too late in the evening because then I won't go to bed.

"Parkinson's a brain injury so I probably find the mental and behaviour side of it most difficult.

"I also get hallucinations and my co-ordination is a bit harder. I get words mixed up and my tremor can be quite bad.

"I don't get good sleep so I was given a patch to help me with that."

His work involves giving presentations and Patrick is always careful before he begins to tell people that he has Parkinson's "so that people don't think I'm having a seizure".

"I know some people don't like to speak about having Parkinson's, but I don't see why I shouldn't tell people.

"This hasn't happened because of anything I have done and I like to explain to people what the tremor is about," he says.

Clearly, Patrick is incredibly candid about his condition and he has even taken to social media in an attempt to educate people about the effects of Parkinson's.

It started when he bought a teddy bear and named it Parky and it became his companion as he travelled to various races around the world.

He would ask other competitors to pose for photographs with Parky to be posted on social media, before explaining its significance and it would invariably result in a discussion about Parkinson's.

Patrick became so well-known that he was approached by a neurologist from England who was familiar with him and his accomplishments and she asked whether she could direct her patients to his social media posts.

He agreed.

Patrick is also an avid supporter of Parkinson's UK, a charity that has provided him with a plethora of support and advice throughout his own journey.

"I did Strictly Come Dancing last year with Therese to raise money and that was another time when I had to make an adjustment, because I can't lead, so we worked on that and I followed Therese," he says.

"The charity has been brilliant and I go along to a coffee meeting which is good because you get to chat to other people who are going through the same thing and you can talk about things that you might not want to discuss with your family."

Six years on from his diagnosis, Patrick remains optimistic about the future.

"I don't see the point in worrying about the future," he says. "Billy Connolly said Parkinson's is life-ending but I don't agree, it's life-changing but you can still have a great life.

"You have to be willing to adapt and work to keep things under control."

He adds: "Yes, you will lose some things but you also gain things. I have made wonderful friends that I would never have made if I didn't have Parkinson's.

"I'm a great believer that you only get one life and you live it in whatever way you can and you make the most of what you have."

Charity chief urges public to learn more about the condition

Patrick Crossan is speaking about his experience of Parkinson's to raise awareness of what it's like living with the condition.

Now more than ever, as the world faces a global pandemic, people living with Parkinson's need support from organisations such as Parkinson's UK.

The charity, which marked World Parkinson's Day last Saturday, also raises funds for research to improve treatments for people living with the degenerative brain condition.

Gary Shaughnessy, chair of the board of trustees at Parkinson's UK, said: "People with Parkinson's often tell us - and I know from my own experience of the condition - that a lack of understanding is one of the biggest challenges they face, leaving them open to harassment and discrimination when out in public.

"Stories like Patrick's not only help to raise public understanding of Parkinson's, but also vital funds to help us improve the lives of people with Parkinson's by finding better treatments and, ultimately, a cure.

"This World Parkinson's Day, we're encouraging members of the public to learn more about the condition by visiting our online platform and searching for the hashtag #knowparkinsons.

"Chances are you know somebody affected by Parkinson's. But do you know Parkinson's?"

Learn more about Parkinson's by visiting www.parkinsons.org.uk/worldparkinsonsday.

Belfast Telegraph