Wobbly, But not Drunk

DECEMBER 11 1999 British Medical Association News Report

Wobbly, but not drunk: Living with Parkinson’s disease

A part from the flat feet and scoliosis I have always had, which eventually put paid to my dreams of being a ballet dancer, I was fortunate enough to dodge illness and incapacity for many years.

Now, at the age of 78, I thank my lucky stars that, until 70, I had enjoyed a life of reasonably good health.

Although I have been on medication for Parkinson’s disease for the past five years, I still enjoy reasonably good health, and my medication has not had to be increased by more than half a tablet. Of course, being somewhat incapacitated is a source of great irritation, but it has its lighter moments too. My companion and I sometimes find ourselves laughing helplessly, overcome with mirth at the bizarre occurrences that result­usually -from the medication itself Although it helps my mobility, it can have strange side-effects. I have been known to fling my dinner through the air like a toddler having a tantrum, and to carefully pour my morning tea onto the carpet instead of down my throat. Sometimes, I cannot hear my phone calls and wonder why the connection is so bad -until it is pointed out to me that I am holding the receiver upside down.

On my tentative walks beside the river near my home, I have been known to stagger to within inches ofthe rushing water, unable to stop myself, and can sense the tut-tuts from passers-by who obviously assume I must be drunk.

Another incident that springs to mind, one directly related to the Parkinson’s syndrome, was the day my legs froze as I descended some stairs in Marbella in Spain. I toppled forward hitting the side of my head against the sharp corner of a door frame with amazing accuracy. With blood spurting everywhere from a sliced vein, I was rushed to hospital where the wound was sutured by a Saudi Arabian surgeon who, I later discovered, only visited the hospital on Mondays. What luck my accident had not occurred between Tuesday and Sunday.

Wearing a pair of my husband’s oldest, baggiest trousers and a pair of slippers, I tried to shield my face from the paparazzi -alerted with astonishing speed -who anticipated

the inevitable drunken actress headline in the Spanish morning papers.

Before Parkinson’s reared its exasperating head, I travelled to London in 1991 to attend a family party for my 70th birthday. I had been feeling unwell for a number of weeks, and although I managed to get through the party without disgracing myself, I was relieved to leave London the following day.

On my flight back to Zurich, I suddenly felt very peculiar, and by the time the plane landed, Iwas too ill to stand. The airport medics were summoned and, as Iwas wheeled off the aircraft, I heard somebody ask: ‘Isn’t that Deborah Kerr, the actress?’ Oh dear, I thought. There will now be rumours circulating about my drinking habits.

On that occasion, my illness turned out to be a large gastric ulcer, and the hospital consultant remarked, after tests that included the swallowing of, in his words, ‘black spaghetti’ -a thin tube with a light and scissors on the end used to snip out a part of my innards -that my ulcer was the most beautiful he had ever seen.

Now my Swiss GP, who comes to my home to take various blood samples, greets me with the words: ‘The vampire is here.’ He says I have the heart of a 25-year-old, and that when I reach the grand old age of 200, he will have to kill me off. I look forward to outliving him.

Since making her stage debut in the 30s, Deborah Kerr ( BE has starred in numerous plays and films, receiving a BAFTA special award in 1991 and an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1993.

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