Doc’s book aims to inspire others patients
“It did in some ways, in other ways it didn’t ... but I was able to recover enough to get back to some part time work in Geelong in 2007 and I started a clinic from home treating people with chronic fatigue syndrome.”
But within a few years a new challenge presented itself when Dr Sommer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“The chronic fatigue syndrome apparently would have been early Parkinson's,” he explains.
“I’ve met a number of other people with Parkinsons who had a number of years of chronic fatigue-like problems before their Parkinson's became obvious.
“You can get early sort of illness before you get the movement difficulties. It’s a new understanding.
“It doesn’t happen to everyone but particularly with young people, like myself, it’s not uncommon.”
Dr Sommer reacted to almost every Parkinson’s medication he tried, and had to dedicate himself to yoga and exercise to keep his movement up.
He’s found the old saying to be true: doctors really do make the worst patients.
“You definitely know too much when you know all the complications and potential outcomes,” he said.
Despite his best efforts his balance deteriorated and Dr Sommer now gets around with the aid of a walker at home and a wheelchair in public.
His intellect, however, has been unaffected and the book gave him a reason to get out of the bed on mornings when falling into a pit of depression would have been the easy option.
“Six years ago I started putting together what my wife called ‘raves’. She’d say, ‘you’re having a rave again, why don’t you go to a computer and open a file called raves and start writing into it?’,” Dr Sommer recalled.
“So I did start doing that and they ultimately became the basis of the book. I developed these essays and then I would layer them with stories of people I have met, inspiring patients that I had and then wove my own story into it as well.”
His determination was further spurred on by a near-death experience in 2012 when he was hospitalised for the fourth time in a year with ulcerative colitis — an inflammatory bowel disease — weighing just 40kg.
At this time he realised that if he died, all the insights he’d gained over his years as a doctor and patient would die with him.
In the 23 chapters of the book, Dr Sommer explores the connection between mind and body, the importance of purpose and meaning, attitudes towards dying and his experience finding humour while healing.
“Keeping my sense of humour was one of the things that kept my sanity. I always try and look on the funny side of life,” he said.
His chapter on CFS talks of the challenge of “validity” surrounding the syndrome and need for social support.
It has inspired the basis of his next book, based solely on CFS, which he hopes to have finished by the end of the year.
“It’s so misunderstood and that was the hardest thing that I faced. As a doctor it was almost multiplied because it was the weirdest thing having people not believe that I was really unwell,” Dr Sommer said.
“People turn their backs on you like you’ve suddenly changed who you are and you’re putting them on.”
His supportive wife Tori, a chiropractor by training, had to stop work once her husband’s needs became too great but has recently undertaken an art degree at Deakin University while caring for him at home where the pair live with their two cats, Claude and Pip.
Now 56, Dr Sommer is investigating whether he is a suitable candidate for deep brain stimulation surgery, which could help reduce or manage his Parkinson’s symptoms. His understanding of the medical research industry gives him confidence a cure for both Parkinson’s and CFS can be found.
In the meantime he hopes his book will help others maintain hope, health and wellbeing, against the odds.
“Things are changing all the time. New discoveries are being made all the time,” he said.
“If you hang in there long enough, technology will catch up and you will keep going.”