No back­ing down

For­mer de­fence­man hopes to stave off his lat­est foe: Parkin­son’s dis­ease

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBIN SHORT

For eight sea­sons, Nathan Dempsey rep­re­sented the St. John’s Maple Leafs with pride, dig­nity and class, not to men­tion skill.

He was the face of the old Amer­i­can Hockey League fran­chise for those eight winters at Memo­rial Sta­dium and later Mile One Cen­tre, a player Leafs fans looked to as their own, even though he was from Western Canada.

To them, Dempsey was more than a hockey player.

He was a friend, a hockey player to whom you’d like to in­tro­duce your daugh­ter, or a buddy you’d like to have over to the shed for a few beers.

You hear it a lot in pro sports, the word “char­ac­ter.” Dempsey oozed char­ac­ter, and it’s that qual­ity that’s help­ing him get through what is un­ques­tion­ably the great­est chal­lenge of his life.

Dempsey, five months shy of his 40th birth­day, has Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

Look­ing at Dempsey — he’s in town as a guest of the St. John’s Ice­Caps for tonight’s As­sante Wealth Man­age­ment AHL All-Star Clas­sic — he’s the pic­ture of health.

He’s got the same boy­ish face, the same grin, al­though he may be a cou­ple or five pounds over his play­ing weight (his Twit­ter pro­file reads, “Used to get paid to play, now I pay to play”). Yet he still looks like he could take a shift or three on the blue­line if the Ice­Caps were in a pinch.

But there’s a tremor on the left side of his body. And it’s never go­ing away.

Still, if any­body can cope with the hand that’s been dealt to him, it’s Dempsey. He’s quick to point out the Parkin­son’s has not beaten him. He still plays hockey, coaches and works at Ed­mon­ton’s Vimy Ridge Hockey Academy, just out­side his Spruce Grove, Alta., home.

And he will re­mind any­one who asks that there are oth­ers far worse off than him. Of course, we think of ac­tor Michael J. Fox and the great Muham­mad Ali, both of whom have Parkin­son’s.

“I’ve al­ways ap­proached things that I live each and ev­ery day like it’s my last, and that’s the way I will con­tinue to live my life,” Dempsey said this week.

So what scares Dempsey is not what the fu­ture holds for him, but rather for his wife, Tr­isha, and their two chil­dren, 14-year-old Rhett and 10-year-old Erica.

“I’m more wor­ried for them than I am for me,” he said. “I think Tr­isha looks ahead to what will hap­pen more so than I do. It will be harder on her than it will be on me.

“For me, what­ever hap­pens is go­ing to hap­pen, but I’m go­ing to do my best to keep it grounded and at bay for as long as I can.

“But even­tu­ally, she’s go­ing to be the one who is re­spon­si­ble for me, and I find that very dif­fi­cult. That’s what I think about.”

Dempsey was di­ag­nosed with Parkin­son’s dis­ease three years ago at age 37, young for that par­tic­u­lar af­flic­tion. He is the first per­son in his fam­ily tree to have Parkin­son’s, as far as he can tell.

Strange as it may seem, Dempsey was al­most re­lieved with the di­ag­no­sis. For years, he said, he had a tremor in his left hand, go­ing all the way back to the 2003-04 hockey sea­son when he played de­fence for the Los An­ge­les Kings.

He ini­tially no­ticed the shak­ing af­ter games and chalked it up to still be­ing pumped with adren­a­line, even af­ter the skates were off.

But then the tremors started oc­cur­ring when he was at rest. Doc­tors in Bos­ton — he played the 2006-07 sea­son in the Bru­ins or­ga­ni­za­tion — di­ag­nosed it as an “es­sen­tial tremor,” which, he said, “isn’t a big deal.”

“Then they thought it might have been a rest­ing tremor, which is a rest­ing es­sen­tial tremor, which is a sis­ter to Parkin­son’s, but not quite Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

“I was con­tin­u­ally meet­ing with neu­rol­o­gists and they didn’t quite know what to tell you. But I knew some­thing was up. In the back of my mind, from do­ing my own re­search and know­ing my own body, I knew it was go­ing to come down at some point to be­ing Parkin­son’s dis­ease.”

Dempsey closed out his ca­reer in 2007-08 in Switzer­land and had surgery in Bern to re­pair a sore hip, an in­jury which pretty much fin­ished his game.

It was around that time, he said, that Parkin­son’s re­ally started to de­velop.

“My wife and I had been deal­ing with this for up to eight years as far as not re­ally know­ing, but know­ing some­thing wasn’t quite right,” he said.

Then came the of­fi­cial news they were wait­ing to hear.

Today, Dempsey takes four dif­fer­ent pills a day. He’s ac­tive, and pays care­ful at­ten­tion to what he eats and drinks. So far, it’s been a win­ning com­bi­na­tion. “I’m not a fan of meds, but the doc­tors got a real good grasp on a good com­bi­na­tion for me,” he said. “And for me to bat­tle this thing, to hold it off for as long as pos­si­ble, it’s im­por­tant to stay in good shape. So that’s some­thing I take very se­ri­ously.”

The tough part, of course, is not know­ing. Dempsey makes it his busi­ness to keep on top of de­vel­op­ments in Parkin­son’s dis­ease re­search, and says some peo­ple are af­fected by it dif­fer­ently than oth­ers.

It’s why, he says, you see Michael J. Fox re­act dif­fer­ently than Ali. The tough part is try­ing to un­der­stand what goes on in the brain, which is still a chal­lenge to doc­tors and sci­en­tists.

“They’re mak­ing great head­way, but at this point in time, it’s still dif­fi­cult for them to tell how long it will be (be­fore there is more of an un­der­stand­ing).

“The thing they do know, how­ever, is that diet and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity is some­thing that can help keep it at bay.”

He even man­ages to find some hu­mour in a dark sit­u­a­tion. His kids re­mind him of his shaky left hand, which his daugh­ter calls his “jazz” hand.

And the good thing — “the good thing, right?” he laughs — is that when di­ag­nosed early on, he said, Parkin­son’s has a ten­dency to progress more slowly.

“Luck­ily for me, I’m ac­tive,” he said. “I’m not let­ting it get the bet­ter of me. I’m not slow­ing down.

“Sure, things could be bet­ter, but they could be a lot worse, too.”

— Photo by Robin Short/the Tele­gram

For­mer St. John’s Maple Leaf Nathan Dempsey is in St. John’s this week to take part in AHL fes­tiv­i­ties.

— Tele­gram file photo

For­mer St. John’s Maple Leafs player Nathan Dempsey.

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