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"I Have Parkinson's"

An educational story about the disease
By Lauren Sue

In June of this past year, I was pulled over by an officer one afternoon for going 10 miles over the speed limit.  When the officer asked for my license and registration my right hand was shaking uncontrollably.  I was fumbling with my purse, I had trouble with the glove box and I subsequently dropped everything on the floorboard of my van.  I knew that police always look for signs of drinking, so to make sure he didn’t misunderstand my shaking hand I simply told him the truth upfront:  I have Parkinson’s.  He said not to worry because “most people shake when we pull them over, but I saw your handicapped plates and figured you might have a medical reason for yours”.  His assumption was correct, I did.  Thankfully, he sent me away with only a warning.  
After hearing that story, a fellow friend with Parkinson’s suggested I order a Medical Alert Card to keep in my van that says "I HAVE PARKINSON'S".  The card also says, in big bright red letters, "I AM NOT INTOXICATED...I HAVE PARKINSON'S".  It also gives a brief description of the symptoms of Parkinson’s and (in case of a real emergency) the possible medications that could be incompatible with some Parkinson’s Medication. I ordered one that afternoon; after all, the next time I might not come across such an understanding police officer (regarding the tremor, not the speeding). A few days later, my Medical Alert card arrived.  Just as my friend had explained, the card does state in big, bright red letters “I have a condition called Parkinson’s Disease which makes me slow and sometimes I cannot stand up or speak.  I AM NOT INTOXICATED”. 


Having this card certainly eased my anxiety of another policeman getting the wrong impression from my shaking hand or stumbling words or even my inability to walk a straight line; however, my fourteen-year-old daughter’s reaction was very different when she first saw the Medical Alert card. “What if this card were to get in the wrong hands", she asked me, “and what would happen if someone who had been drinking chose to use this card as a decoy by saying,  I'm not drunk, officer, I have Parkinson’s’”.  I explained to her that a person who had been drinking would, in all likelihood, have many telltale signs and symptoms of intoxication that have nothing to do with my disease. Her question made me realize something. Although many people would be able to recognize intoxication, how many would be able to recognize Parkinson’s. Her simple question gave me the foundation for this story and so begins: "I Have Parkinson's".


Imagine if you will a very, very drunk man who has NOTHING to do with Parkinson’s, yet has everything to do with being extremely intoxicated.  Upon leaving the bar where he has just swallowed a large portion of his paycheck from a frosty glass, he pulls his coat closed on this windy night and stumbles towards his parked car.  As he struggles to get his key in the lock, the wind swirls crisp leaves around him like ice in a bartender’s blender. Suddenly, a wrinkled piece of paper, which almost resembles a business card, blows past him among the leaves and lands at his feet.  Maybe it’s a lottery ticket, he thinks to himself, hoping that vast fortunes, not to mention free beer, are in his immediate future. 


Bending over to pick up the paper is not a simple task, as the beer in his belly almost feels as if it’s rushing to his head with the tip of his body.  With the paper retrieved, he rights himself and walks over to read the contents under the streetlamp. Rubbish, trash…no winnings in his immediate future or free beer for that matter.  It was just some silly MEDICAL ALERT card some poor sap must have lost from his car.  He never notices the barely legible name of the person who lost the card scrawled across the back.  He is about to toss it into the night air when some red letters across the front of the card catch his eye.  They spell out: “I AM NOT INTOXICATED”.


Well, I am”, he laughs back at the card.  Maybe I should drag that card back into the bar and buy it a few rounds, because that poor card isn’t intoxicated,” he muses. “It has no idea what it’s missing.”  The man continues to chuckle to himself and decides to pocket the poor sober Medical Alert Card.  Then an inspiring thought comes to his mind as he unlocks his door and slips behind the wheel.  Maybe I’m “not intoxicated” if I am carrying this card. 


He knows he is in no condition to drive.  He knows this nearly every night he leaves his favorite bar and heads home.  He’s been lucky…so far.  As usual, he feels in control; after all, he’s a professional drinker, not like those drunks who cause fatalities by drinking and driving.  Unlike them, he can handle his liquor.  Besides”, he tries to convince himself, “home is just a short drive away and if my luck runs out and I actually get pulled over, I’ll have my new sobering excuse with this medical alert card.”  Maybe it isn’t a lottery ticket, but he suddenly feels like a winner.  As he pulls out of the parking lot, he clips the curb on the turn, causing a large scrape across his hubcap.  Ahhhh, just another souvenir of another good night of drinking”, he thinks to himself. He notices it seems darker than usual, but that’s because of something he failed to notice: he had neglected to turn on his headlights.


Meanwhile, a few blocks down the road, an officer sits in his patrol car with the window down, enjoying the cool, fresh breeze on a night more quiet than usual.  So far this evening, he has ticketed a speeder, warned another for running a yellow light and checked on a disturbance of peace only to find a frantic cat caught in a trashcan.  He’s close to the end of his shift and pleased that this evening has been free of any mayhem, murder or mishaps. As he’s finishing up his final report for the evening, he notices a car coming down the street without any headlights on.  As the car passes his position, he quickly pulls on to the street behind the weaving car.  He radios to headquarters that he is pulling over a car, the reason for the traffic stop and the license plate, which ironically spells out the letters “N KONTROL”.  Well, this driver certainly wasn’t “N Kontrol” tonight.  


With lights flashing and siren blaring, the officer pulls the weaving car over to the side of the road.  His initial suspicion is that he will be dealing with a DUI. So far, it fits the profile, but the driver would certainly be innocent until proven guilty.  It was always a risk to approach a car on a dark night in an empty street, but it was all part of the job.  As he walks over to the car, he shines the flashlight into the person's eyes, prompting them to shield themselves from the pain caused by the brightness.  The driver’s eyes are as a red as the siren lights. The smell of alcohol is almost as overwhelming as the stench of stale cigarettes emanating from the car.  So much for the fresh breeze he had been enjoying.


Officer: "license & registration please"


Drunk, realizing he could use that “get out of jail” free card he found outside the bar just a moment before, quickly reaches into his pocket and pulls out the wrinkled Medical Alert Card.  He slurs, "officer, here's my Medical Alert Card".


Officer: "excuse me, sir, I need your license & registration please"


Drunk: practically spitting in the officer's face because of his inability to form words properly, “but officer, I am NOT intoxicated.  See…” he spouts while shoving the wrinkled medical alert card in the officer’s face, “I have Parkinson’s.  It says so on this card in bright red letters. SEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”.  He practically pokes the officer in his eyes with each attempt to point out each individual word on the card, as if doing so would validate his lie.


The Officer is not amused.  His own father has Parkinson’s Disease.  When his father’s medication is “off”, his father may be difficult to understand when he’s speaking, but mostly because his voice has less volume than before he had Parkinson’s and he has a tendency to fumble his words. He speaks that way because of his disease, not because his vocal cords have been drowning in beer! His father may not be able to walk a straight line when asked, but only because Parkinson’s has affected his gait and his balance, not because he is too drunk to walk. His father’s hand may constantly move as if he’s holding an invisible maraca keeping a constant steady beat, but that’s his resting tremor, not a withdrawal from an intoxicating substance.


His father may do many things that might be perceived by someone else as a person who was under the influence of something…someone who didn’t know about Parkinson’s.   He’s seen his father’s body dance to a rhythm all its own as the dyskinesia kicks in each day.  He’s seen his father unable to take a step as the Parkinson’s makes him a momentary prisoner in his own body as he freezes in place.  He’s seen his father struggle to do things he often took for granted like pulling on a coat, tying shoes or even trying to eat a bowl of soup.  He’s even seen strangers rudely stare, obviously drawing their own wrong conclusions as to why his father moves involuntarily. 


He’s seen Parkinson’s.  This man in the car bearing the same medical alert card his father carries does not appear to have Parkinson’s at all.  He just appears drunk.  He reeks of alcohol; however, his eyes almost advertise the alcohol consumption more than his breath.  It’s a good thing he hadn’t yet gone off duty and was still in the area.  He shuddered at the thought of what could have transpired if this drunk continued driving under the influence.  He thought of his loved ones, his parents, his wife, and his own son; how their safety, along with the entire community, was at stake because this guy didn’t have enough sense to take a cab home. It was a good thing he was there to pull him over and keep him off the roads.  It would be a simple arrest and a simple booking, he was certain, yet before an arrest could be made there was a matter of this Medical Alert Card.  Even if this man did indeed have Parkinson’s it was not an excuse to drive drunk.


Officer: “Sir, I see your Medical Alert Card.  I see it says you have Parkinson’s and it claims you are not intoxicated, but you appear to be under the influence”.


Drunk: “No Sir.  I am not inthothicaaated. I have Parkinthon’s.  If my breath smells like beer it’s because I have Par-kin-thons


Officer: “Oh really? And why would your breath smell like Beer if you had Parkinson’s


Drunk: “becuz it’s a symptom of Parkinthhons, sir”


The officer takes the card to get a closer look. The medical alert information covers the front of the card, while symptoms and warnings covered the back, along with some fill-in the blanks for personal information that someone had neglected to fill in. Perhaps they hadn't had a chance or perhaps they figured no one would be able to read it in any case; the signature scrawled on the back seems impossible to decipher. 


He scans the list of symptoms provided on the card.  Sure enough, it gives a pretty accurate, yet brief, description of his father: “slow, sometimes cannot stand and sometimes cannot speak”.  It pains him to think of his father struggling so with the effects of Parkinson’s.  Once upon a time, his father had been a police officer, as well.  It had always been this officer’s dream to grow up and be just like his Dad.  With that dream fulfilled, his new dream was that they would soon discover a cure for Parkinson’s.  He was positive it would happen, because dreams do come true.  He was living proof of that fact as he stood there looking like a reflection of his father when he was about the same age. He wondered how often his father had to shine the light of his flashlight into the bloodshot eyes of a drunken driver in his days on the force.  All too many, he was sure.


Officer:So, Beer Breath is a symptom of Parkinson’s you say?  Then why don’t I see it listed as a symptom on this card?”


Drunk: proud of himself for thinking of an answer so quickly despite the sloshing beer in his head: “because the card was too small to fit all of the symptoms”


This was very true, the officer thought to himself. The card’s brief description of Parkinson’s didn’t even touch all of the things his father had to live with in the past twenty year since he was diagnosed.  This little card didn’t mention difficulty walking, something he knew his father struggled with daily.  There was no reference to a loss of smell, yet another effect from the loss of dopamine his father experienced (although, a loss of smell might come in handy right now, as he was breathing in the fumes from this drunk’s breath). This little medical alert card didn’t even mention how his father’s signature was closer to squiggly lines rather than the majestic “John Hancock” it once resembled. In fact, his father's signature was closer to the one scribbled on the back of this medical alert card.


Officer:  Sir, Please step out of the vehicle”


Drunk:TH-ertainly officer”, he says as he opens his car door and stumbles in to the street.


Officer, in response to several empty beers cans he spots on the floor of the car as the man exited: “could you explain the empty cans in your car, sir?”


Drunk:Well, I uhhhhhh…I collect cans for recycling…to uhhhhh…pay for my medical expenses because…”


Officer:let me guess, because you have Parkinson’s, right?”


Drunk:  “yes, sir”, practically beaming because he is being so quick on his feet, “I have Parkinson’s”


He may have thought he was being quick on his feet, but no sooner had that thought crossed his mind the drunk was face first in the street after stumbling over his own foot.  The officer asks if he is okay, as the drunk awkwardly helps himself back up.  He said he is just fine and then the officer tells him he wants to do a small sobriety check.  The drunk tries to assure him this is not necessary, that it was just his Parkinson’s, but the officer insists.


First he tells him to hold his arms up and out to each side and to slowly bring the pointer finger on each hand to the tip of his nose.  For the drunk, this was easy, as his nose was throbbing from a combination of his recent fall coupled with the effects of too much beer.  With steady hands, he easily brought one finger and then the other to the tip of his nose.  He was concentrating so hard on his hands he didn’t even notice he was slightly swaying as if he were on the deck of a rocking boat.


The officer not only noticed his swagger and sway, but the unbelievable steadiness of the drunken man’s hands.


Officer:  Sir, when was the last time you took your medication?”


Drunk:  What medication?”


Officer:  Don’t you take medication for your Parkinson’s, sir?”


Drunk:  oh, that medication.  Well, I uh, I took some…” the drunk’s brain is swimming.  He doesn’t know what would be the correct answer?  Would it be recent?  Would it be too long ago?  What would be more accurate in this situation?  Would this cop even know?  Um, I took it a bit before you pulled me over?”


The drunk notices the quizzical look on the officer’s face, which makes him think this might not be the correct answer, so before the officer can say another word he sputters: “no, I thhhink it was around Lunch time.  Yep.  That’s it”. 


Officer:  Really?  Your hands are so steady.”


Drunk: not quite recognizing the suspicions mounting against his alibi: “yep”.


Officer: “what medication do you take for your Parkinson’s, sir?”


Drunk:Well, th-ir, I take y’ur classic Parkin-thon’s medicathon.”


Officer:Do you recall the name, sir?”


Drunk: “I can’t think of the name of it right now.”


Maybe the drunk couldn’t think of any, but the officer could think of plenty, especially since his father had been prescribed so many over the years.  Sometimes, as he listened to his father’s watch alarm go off yet again as a constant reminder that more medication was due in his system, he wondered if his father wasn’t a walking, breathing pharmacy.  This drunk man before him just appeared to be a staggering, stuttering brewery! 


It was past time for him to be home with his family, it was past time for this drunk to be off the roads, so he offers the opportunity of a Breathalyzer.


Officer: “this test would prove if you really haven’t been drinking, sir”


Drunk: realizing his luck was just about to run out: “never mind”


With that, they were they were off to county jail.  The first thing he did the next morning was to call his father.  The father was proud of his son, because he was carrying on the family tradition of keeping the town safe.  The son was proud of his father, just because.


Several weeks later, that same officer was assigned to conduct a Sobriety Checkpoint the force had set up on the edge of town.  As he worked along side several of his fellow officers, he took his turn checking for trouble in the small line of traffic waiting to pass through the flares and cones they had set up as a barrier.  A blue family van was next to go through the checkpoint and the driver rolled down the window.  The young woman appeared to be in her thirties and he assumed she was a mother, as a small child smiled at the officer from his car seat in the back. He tipped his hat to the little boy, who reminded him so much of his own child, and he asked to see her license and registration.

The woman leaned down and said, “one moment, I’ve got to reach over to the glove compartment."


He didn’t notice any smell coming from the car, only the smell of the flares burning in the darkness behind him. In the glare of his flashlight, the whites of her eyes practically matched the clean white socks her toddler was trying so hard to take off of his tiny little feet. She seemed fine, but the officer noticed her right hand was shaking non-stop. It was not unusual for people to shake with fear when they are pulled over, but it is unusual for people to shake only on one side. The tremor in her hand made opening the glove compartment almost impossible and as she fumbled with her license she accidentally dropped it out of the window before the officer could reach it. 


As he stood back up from retrieving the license, he not only noticed he was right about her age (she was 36 according to her birth date), but he also noticed she was frantically looking for something.  She carefully handed him the registration with her steady hand but then she continued looking on the floorboard, between the seats, under the visor.  He had the registration…he had her license. What could she be missing?


The woman apologized for being so distracted and explained that she, “ was looking for my Medical Alert Card.  I usually have it tucked under my visor.  You see, I have…”


“…Parkinson’s?”, the officer asked, finishing her sentence at the same time.


Yes, I do”, she replied, “I have Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease. How did you know?”


I assumed you did, because my father has Parkinson’s Disease and your tremor reminded me of his.”  He needed to get on with the Sobriety Checkpoint and this woman was clearly not intoxicated, but before he sent her on her way, he reached into the pocket on his uniform and retrieved the medical alert card he had taken from the Drunk man a few weeks before.  He had decided to keep that wrinkled card near his heart, because it was a small reminder of his father’s daily struggles and that he should never, ever take anything for granted.


He turned over the medical alert card and tried to reread the name written across the back. Astonished, he realized that the signature on that card actually matched the signature on her license that he was still holding in his hands.  What are the chances?  He grabbed his pen and began writing something beneath her signature on the alert card.  The woman, who was wondering if she was getting a ticket for something, was shocked when the officer handed her the very card she had obviously lost at some point over the past few weeks.  She recognized her very own signature (or what was left of it, thanks to the effects of her tremor on her handwriting) scrawled across the red line on the bottom.


How in the world did you have my card?”


I’ll have to have my father explain that to you”, he laughed, “and I put his number on the bottom of your card.  He doesn’t live too far away and he’s always looking for more members for his Parkinson’s Support Group. Have a nice evening and drive safely.” 


With a tip of his hat to the sock-less toddler in the back of the van, he began to make his way to the next car, but not before the woman could say a quick “thank you” before rolling up her window.  She tucked the Medical Alert back in her visor and made a mental note that she had a very important phone call to make in the morning.  She expected to find traffic on her way home this evening, but she never imagined a Support Group in her future would find her. Lauren Sue 2003


The National Parkinson's Foundation encourages all patients to request a Parkinson's Medical Alert Card if they don't already have one. To request your card you can call the NPF at 1-800-327-4545

Click here to visit the iVillage online support group for Parkinson's Disease

"I Have Parkinson's" an original story by Lauren Sue