PAWTUCKET, R.I. (AP) — About 11 years ago, Dighton's Mike Quaglia started noticing that his hands would start to shake when he reached out his arm to pick something up.
Three years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which petrified him at first, then threw off his coordination, led to his shoulder becoming stiff, caused depression and just made him feel clumsy. Late last year, an out-of-shape Quaglia considered quitting his job and going on disability, after the symptoms of the disease became too severe.
But this year, he decided to fight back.
With his hands wrapped up in red tape, Mike Quaglia strapped on boxing gloves and got in the ring in a Pawtucket, Rhode Island, gym to train with a regional heavyweight champ, releasing a fury of punch combinations on pads that his new coach held up for him. The exercise is part of the Rock Steady Boxing program that Quaglia helped bring to New England in late April, which dramatically changed his life for the better.
"Before I started this program, I was isolated," said Quaglia, 50, who makes a living as a recruiter for engineering jobs. "I stayed at home. I didn't want to go out anywhere. I felt embarrassed of myself. I had anxiety and depression. But once I started working out and feeling better and moving better, the world opened up again for me. Since starting this program, there is hope."
The New England chapter of the Rock Steady Boxing program, which is aimed at helping people with Parkinson's disease, was co-founded about three months ago by Quaglia and reigning New England lightweight boxing champion Rich Gingras.
The program helped Quaglia lose 30 pounds, gain muscles he didn't have in his 30s and experience a huge confidence boost. In addition to that, Quaglia said, the symptoms of Parkinson's became less noticeable.
"I started getting better," Quaglia said. "I started getting healthier, stronger and my voice became better."
Parkinson's disease is a degenerative disorder that is characterized by motor symptoms that are caused by the death of dopamine-producing cells in the brain.
Each year, approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease across the country, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. An estimated one million Americans live with the disease, which is more than those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's disease combined, according to the foundation.
Quaglia's symptoms were becoming much worse this past December and January, including the intensification if his dyskinesia, which is the unintended, uncontrollable movements caused by the Parkinson's medication that is used to increase dopamine levels in patients.
During those months, as he searched for answers, Quaglia stumbled upon a documentary video of the original Rock Steady Boxing program that was founded in Indianapolis. Quaglia said that it lit a spark in him, and he "became a little obsessed" with the concept. Quaglia asked for advice from friends on Facebook to help bring the program here, and he received an outpouring of help from people he had not seen since his high school years, eventually being put in touch with Gingras, who owns the Fight2Fitness gym in Pawtucket.
Quaglia tried to convince Gingras to help him start a New England chapter of the Rock Steady Boxing program, and the boxer decided to roll with the concept. Now, Gingras said he is convinced that Parkinson's patients must get involved.
"In my nature, I like to help people," said Gingras, who will fight for the USA New England light heavyweight title on Sept. 12 at Twin River. "At first, I was little skeptical. But the proof is in the pudding. At first, I just watched the results and then I started to research. And I said, 'This is really working.'"
There are now more than 30 Parkinson's patients who have participated in the Rock Steady Boxing New England program, Quaglia said.
Gingras said that people with Parkinson's must exercise to help generate natural dopamine, or a "runner's high," to relieve symptoms associated with Parkinson's medication. Also, Gingras said, if people with Parkinson's ever suffer a fall, they will be better prepared if they are more physically fit.
In addition to weightlifting, punching bags, stretching and other exercise Gingras puts the Rock Steady Boxing participants through, they also have exercises to improve their gait. One activity involves two poles that Gingras holds, with one in each hand, then the participant also holds them, while they walk in unison. This exercise helps the participants move their arms correctly while walking, because most people with Parkinson's lose natural movement in one of their arms when they walk.
To learn more about the techniques and the intricacies of the Rock Steady Program, Quaglia and Gingras traveled together to Indianapolis in late April to see where it was all created. Quaglia compared it to a "religious experience" for him, getting to see the passion that the original program had for helping people with Parkinson's. After that, they both became certified and started the program in Pawtucket.
"Everything with medication means you need to take more, more, more," Quaglia said. "With exercise you just get better and stronger, and then you can keep pushing yourself more. I hope this is going to stop the progression. But if it doesn't, I can handle it now, because it feels like it has been at least slowed down. I've seen such a difference. You create more higher natural dopamine levels and feel better and better."
Quaglia said he is grateful to have Gingras, whose daily business is to train and motivate members of his gym, shouting at them to keep pushing and never give up. Gingras even makes phone calls to participants who are absent for classes, checking up on them, encouraging them to get back to the gym.
"Parkinson's doesn't take a day off," Gingras said. "You have to work harder than the disease does or else it will win."
For Sandy MacLeod, a single mother of two teenage boys, Rock Steady Boxing was exactly what she was looking for since she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease six years ago, when she went into her doctor's office expecting to hear that she just had a pinched nerve. Her reaction: "I was angry," she said.
MacLeod, who was already a very physically active woman, said that from the time of her Parkinson's diagnosis, she was determined make exercise her remedy.
MacLeod said that she could never find a group fitness program for people with Parkinson's before she saw a Rock Steady video online, and heard more about it coming to Rhode Island about six months ago, when representatives of the program introduced it at her local support group meeting. Prior to that, she found herself frustrated at the local gym, working out alone.
Now, MacLeod said, she is extra motivated and energized. MacLeod also noted the diversity of the participants, including people of various age groups. The older participants can be seen regularly at the gym, lighting punching on pads that Gingras wears on his chest, working to increase their force.
"The camaraderie of the whole thing is amazing," MacLeod said. "It's all ages, some in their 40s and some in their 70s. Some travel an hour to get there. Some are in a wheelchair. It's just a whole bunch of great people who aren't ready to give into the disease."
MacLeod said she is thankful that Quaglia took the initiative to bring the program to New England. MacLeod recalled a recent anecdote, when she was walking in her neighborhood, and her neighbor commented that she looked happier and was walking better.
"I've lost a few more pounds and, not that I really needed to, but just feel better," she said. "My body is stronger. I have two teenage boys. One of them went to pat me on the arm one time, and said, 'You're all muscle, Mom.' I'm definitely stronger. Rock Steady just gets you moving and doing things that you normally wouldn't have been doing."
MacLeod also said that Gingras, the boxer, is a demanding but encouraging trainer.
"Doing the best you can pushing yourself, every little bit you can do for yourself helps," MacLeod said. "(Gingras) just talks to us. He doesn't baby us. He says, 'Come on you guys!' He gets us moving. I'm so grateful he's in our corner."
Quaglia's wife, Donna Quaglia, often joins her husband at the Rock Steady Boxing program, which she said has caused a "dramatic change" for the better.
Donna Quaglia recalled that when her husband first went to meet Gingras, he nearly gave up on the idea before ever trying.
"The first night he couldn't find sneakers and said he wasn't going to go, at first," she said. "But something told him he has to come. ...I'm an avid runner. I told him he has to exercise. Rich (Gingras) is a good motivator. I thank God for him. Life is a lot better."
Donna Quaglia, who began to cry after talking about the effects of the disease, said the program was a blessing that allowed her husband turn from a near recluse, to an active, fun-loving and confident man.
"It has been a dramatic change," she said. "Before, he never told anyone and pretended it wasn't there. Throughout the last year, he didn't go anywhere. He was embarrassed about the symptoms. ... He's much more adventurous now. 'Let's just get in the car,' he says."
Her husband agrees, and his happy for it.
"I got people around me who support me and push me," Quaglia said. "It makes you move freer. And it feels wonderful."