November 14th, 2012
08:16 AM ET

Parkinson's didn't stop his space walk

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed.  As a teenager Rich Clifford dreamed of being an astronaut. After a successful career in the army, his dream of traveling into space came true.  Then he was diagnosed with a serious brain disorder - a secret he kept for 15 years.

It had been a little more than four months since completing my second space shuttle mission, STS-59, on the shuttle Endeavour.

I was finishing my annual flight physical at the Johnson Space Center Flight Medicine Clinic.  The words from the flight surgeon were as expected: I was in great condition with nothing of note.  Then I asked the doctor to look at my right shoulder because my racketball game was suffering.

He asked if I had pain. I told him I wasn't in pain, but my right arm did not swing naturally when I walked. This comment must have set off some alarm because he observed my walk down the hall and quickly said he would take me downtown to the Texas Medical Center the next day.

I remember saying, “I don’t believe we can see an orthopedic surgeon that quickly.”  He merely noted that we were going to a neurologist.

Little did I know that next day would change my life so quickly. The neurologist spent 5 minutes with me before saying that I had Parkinson’s Disease. He added I would have to undergo several separate tests to prove that I didn’t have some other neurological disorder. Parkinson’s Disease is diagnosed by the process of eliminating other possible diseases.

After several tests the diagnosis was confirmed.  This was December 1995.

To their credit, the flight surgeons asked me what I wanted to do about flying.  I quickly said I wanted to continue with all activities, including standing in line for another space shuttle mission.  I kept my condition a secret to all, except my wife and my children. I assumed senior NASA management were told, but no one ever spoke to me about the disease. They protected my privacy.

I continued my normal duties and was subsequently offered my third shuttle mission -  STS-76, which included a planned space walk.  The mission was highly successful.  One year after that  mission, I left NASA for a job in the private sector supporting human space flight.

With the exception of my closest friends and family, I kept my condition a secret for almost 15 years.  My reason for secrecy was simple: People did not need to know.

Now I'm an advocate for Parkinson’s Disease awareness. Having Parkinson’s Disease is no reason to stop living life to its fullest extent.  Yes, as the disease progresses I have had to change the way I do certain activities, but I continue to do them.

I have a keen awareness now of the stress my disease places on my loved ones who provide me encouragement and tender-loving care.  The caregivers to a person with Parkinson’s are the people who give so much of their lives to care for a loved one.  My wife is my caregiver and I am acutely aware of her sacrifices.  Parkinson’s disease affects more than just the patient.  The patient needs to understand the caregiver is there to help.

So do not let Parkinson’s Disease control your life.  You may do things slower, or you may not be able to do things you once did as easily.  It is not the end of the world. Do not give up trying.

soundoff (145 Responses)
  1. Michael

    So you put yourself and everyone else around you at risk, so you were not in the condition like my Aunt however you should be ashamed. Basically you lied and shame on NASA for not doing something about it, All these people and groups I have looked up to over the years are no longer my heroes.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CDNGirl

      Michael, I suggest you research Parkinson's Disease before claiming that NASA put their staff at risk. The first signs of Parkinson's are tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement, and postural instability. As the above article states he noticed that his shoulder was not swinging naturally (rigidity) The disease doesn't progress overnight, the symptoms increase in severity over many years. I watched my grandfather live with this disease for 40 years of his life.

      November 14, 2012 at 11:53 | Report abuse |
    • Lawrence

      What did your grandfather do for treating Parkinson's? What Doctors did he see and where are they? We have a very small choice of who treats PD here in NM. My wife does not seem to respond to all the drugs she has been given and has only been diagnosed with PD about 8 yrs. ago and she is not able to anything on her own. Her biggest problem is her balance. And she can't use her legs hardly. Isn't it progressing pretty fast?

      November 15, 2012 at 02:00 | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      Lawrence, Parkinson's progresses at different rates for each individual. I was diagnosed about 15 years ago. Sinemet is the 'magic' pill for most of us, so if your wife hasn't tried it yet, I would definitely recommend it. It has kept me going for most of the time since I was first diagnosed. More specifically, try the Sinemet 50/200 CR (controlled release), which evens out the dosage a bit during the day/night. Good luck. Ken

      November 15, 2012 at 07:48 | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Hello Lawrence,
      Your situation with your wife sounds frustrating. If you have not had a second opinion by an experienced and qualified physician who is used to dealing with Parkinson's then I'd suggest this, even if it means you have to travel a distance to get the help you need. The first question may be; does your wife have an accurate diagnosis? There are many forms of treatment for Parkinson's, which includes medication. I'm a bit concerned when you describe imbalance and leg weakness. Best Wishes.

      November 15, 2012 at 16:19 | Report abuse |
    • Lawrence

      Thanks for your reply. You asked if she has been diagnosed. Yes, by 3 different neurologists. their treatments have all been similar, same meds, same dosages. What I am frustrated about is that PD is progressing so fast. I do have an appointment to take her to be seen at the Mayo clinic in Scottsdale, AZ in Jan. Can you suggest to me any questions that I should ask? I know that she has been on the lowest dose of sinimet and no one has suggested a higher dose for her. Along with all the other classic meds that she is taking for PD, she is just not responding as she should

      November 16, 2012 at 00:36 | Report abuse |
    • GS

      If you haven't already tried Physical Therapy, please ask your doctor if it would be appropriate. If your wife could exercise with a walker or similar support structure, that will help. If there's no movement at all in the legs, she could try an oxycycle to get muscles moving. There are several stretching exercises that can be done sitting down or even lying down. Apart from medication, exercise is the single best way to arrest the progression. Best wishes to you and your wife. Disclaimer – I am not a neurologist, just the daughter of someone with PD.

      November 19, 2012 at 14:24 | Report abuse |
    • Pete

      Michael, every one of us puts everyone around (us) at risk every minute of every day. The surgeon was comfortable with him flying, so any additional risks were insignificant.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:11 | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      It's fortunate that the ignorance and arrogance in your comment are not widely shared by those in whom we trust with our manned space flight programs. Perhaps you should revise your criteria for hero to those who overcome adversity and resignation (the resignation you would so eagerly have them embrace) and succeed at their chosen endeavors. I guess it's easier to mindlessly throw a life away because of something you don't understand, than to try and understand it. I hope for your sake that you never are judged by the criteria you use to judge others.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:12 | Report abuse |
    • grist

      Inspiring story. Need to correct something said by CNDGirl: postural instability is NOT a sign of early Parkinson's. If a person with Parkinson's like symptoms has postural instability at the onset of the disease, it is almost certainly not Parkinson's. Also, despite what the examining physician said, it is almost never necessary to do tests to diagnose Parkinson's. It is simply a clinical diagnosis based on the symptoms and examination. Not many people realize that most people with Parkinson's live a full life span. We are doing much better with improving the quality of life as well. Glad he was able to do the space walk!

      November 14, 2012 at 20:13 | Report abuse |
    • GREG

      YOU ARE A JERK MICHAEL, his disease was at such an early stage that no one was at risk. I am sure you will have a poorly thought out comeback to this.

      July 22, 2013 at 08:14 | Report abuse |
    • bfpiercelk

      NASA knew about it you illiterate toolbag.

      July 22, 2013 at 09:05 | Report abuse |
    • Chcukie

      Lawrence, I have been diagnosed with Parkinson's. This was about two years ago. My only symptom was a tremor in my right hand and forearm. My doctor put me on Artan, which minimized the tremors then, but they are progressively returning. About a year in I reported to him that I had weakness in my legs; they would get "wobbly" at the knees when I walked. He response was, "That isn't due to Parkinson's." He conducted a series of nerve tests and diagnosed Carcot Marie Tooth disease. In one respect that is good as CMT can be confirmed by DNA tests, unlike Parkinson's which has no objective test. However, the test is very expensive and probably provides no added value, other than to eliminate any speculation on other diseases. The rapidity of the advancement of your wife's symptoms and the weakness in the legs doesn't seem to be indicative of Parkingson's, but I am certainly no expert. Neurological disease diagnosis is a very murky area.

      July 22, 2013 at 09:56 | Report abuse |
  2. Sean

    Thank you for sharing this inspirational story. Parkinson's disease is not a choice–but you chose to not allow it to hold you back.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. bohawk

    what the doctors dont tell you is 5,000 units of vitamin D a day fight off breast cancer, the need for knee replacements and neurological demise.

    November 14, 2012 at 12:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tara

      Parkinsons is the destruction of the substantia nigra – an area which creates dopamine. Your mental capabilities in no way decrease, although there are a few medications for it that have cognitive side effects. Don't tell people false information – you can't herbal supplement your way out of this.

      November 14, 2012 at 16:00 | Report abuse |
    • grist

      Unfortunately, 30-40% do suffer from cognitive decline (dementia) at some point in their disease.

      November 14, 2012 at 20:15 | Report abuse |
  4. Lisa

    My father was diagnosed with Parkinsons about 12 years ago. He took it as a reason to sit on his butt and do next to nothing. Now he is in a nursing home. If you have just been diagnosed please FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT to keep as much of your life as you can. Please do not sit idly in a chair and wait for death. You will die WITH Parkinsons not because of it, usually.

    November 14, 2012 at 12:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Raj

      Lisa, I will hand-write your words in large letters and paste a copy on my bedside table and the other on the refrigerator door, to remind me always and every time. I flew fighter jets in the AirForce with PD; Nobody knew: Nobody needs to know. Albeit mostly I live my life by your words, sometime PD gets the better of me. Thank you sweetheart for that loving warning!!

      November 14, 2012 at 21:57 | Report abuse |
    • GS

      I totally identify with your comment. My mom was diagnose with PD in 1999, and by 2003 she decided that all she would do was just wait for death. Since then I got married and had my son, and I felt like the mother who had nurtured me when I was young just went missing all of a sudden. It is so hard to get her to do her exercises. She has almost no mobility. I hope others can learn from these experiences and not let PD define your life.

      November 15, 2012 at 19:36 | Report abuse |
  5. swashy

    Well except for the Moronic comment at the top...
    I have PD AND Brain Cases tumors , i fly large RC helicopters and RC airplanes.*And i have a VERY BAD tremor, I also ride dirt bikes and mountain bike, Still do art work and various other hobby plus i am a senior technology consultant, Like all diseases if you let it beat you it will. I don't get why the NASA gent kept it a secret for 15years and suddenly became a PD advocate,
    He is not my hero for that reason but i do understand why he did it..*to safeguard his life from Peoples like Michael...

    November 14, 2012 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Ron

    What a good thing, that his doctors let him continue and be an astronaut, instead of overreacting. It would have taken one jerk to get him iced.......maybe like the jerk at the top of the page.

    November 14, 2012 at 18:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Brian

    Great and inspiring story. I have Parkinson's disease and I am also a very successful practicing clinical physician. I have shared my personal journey with others, but I can certainly understand why some would not because of cruel and thoughtless critics like Michael above. Never give in to the Michaels and never give up on life.

    November 14, 2012 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Lawrence

    How is it possible to get a good workout and exercise when the most severe case of imbalance is present? This is the biggest problem my wife has due to PD. she was diagnosed with PD about 8 yrs. ago. Now she is hardly able to walk, talk and eat or do anything by herself. I hear about people having Parkinson's for a long, long time and they are able to do almost everything by themselves. Am I missing something? Are we not going to the right doctors? Please help!!!!!!

    November 15, 2012 at 01:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jonathan

      I have a Parkingson's patient in my family. The important thing is to find a good neurologist whose goal is to help you be independent 10, 20, 30 and more years down the road. Most private-practice neurologists are eager to tackle your symptons rigorously NOW because they want your business, which typically leads to faster worsening of the symptons and earlier exhaustion of medical options.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:37 | Report abuse |
  9. Melinda

    I have PD too, the medication Sinemet helps. This Parkinson's I got affects my RN carreer because I'm slow, stiff, rigid, cannot stand long without leaning or holding to something (balance impairment) along with little tremors especially when my medication wears off. I have no pain. I 'm trying to do the best I can. Some things I cannot do anymore. I know my limitations.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. stemcellmaster

    Some really exciting news just went out for parkinsons

    My father has the condition and it really sucks 🙁 Hopefully they will soon move to human clinical trials!

    February 4, 2013 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kellie

    My Dad has parkinson's and his does not respond to any medication. He has tried them all. His started with small pill rolling gestures with his fingers on one hand. 4 years later he has whole body tremors but he never sits around even through he is retired. He works outside, gardens, does mechanic work, splits fire woods with a mechanical splitter, fishes, cuts grass, etc...brain surgery seems to be his only option but he has a clotting disorder that prevents it. I am just so thankful that he always keeps at what he loves to do. Despite a shuffling gate and some new stuttering he never stops going at it. It will breatk my heart when the day comes that he will be locked inside his body.

    July 22, 2013 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Parkinson's disease helping spouse in New York

    I would suggest if it is available in your hometown to join a Parkinson's support group to learn
    from other patients and carepartner's little tricks that we long term friends and family members
    have come up with to help those afflicted.
    While the general diagnosis is the same at first for all
    patient's the timing and the cause and effect (the route of disability) is different for all patient's.
    The hint's found in a PD support group are invaluable ,what is harder for us to achieve is Neurologist's
    to listen directly what we have come up with ,this issue is getting better but Physician's have to listen
    to those that caregiver's as teachers (for lack of a better word) and not just as mate's or siblings or
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    This disease does effect each patient differently and so too the carepartner's.

    July 22, 2013 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Gussie

    Parkinson's is misdiagnosed 25% of the time in any particular patient by not one but many doctors. There is no direct positive test for Parkinson's - it's a question of it being one of many illnesses left when others which can be measured have been ruled out. Most neurologists diagnose and misdiagnose and push pills, not exercise. They have no clue as to what family or community support is available. It's a do it yourself project. So make it a community project on your own. As a group you'll be better educated than your neurologist within a few months of meetings. Our medical system is broken. P.S. Also look into helpful resources from the mostly highly regarded research doctors in medicine - you will most often find them in Western Europe, not the U.S.

    July 22, 2013 at 10:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. krazy

    Dear Mr. Clifford,

    Thank you so much for your inspiring story. I hope the very small amount of negativity that is displayed here will not upset you. You are a hero in my book. My mother had Parkinson's with dementia and I know how hard it is to find the right therapy, but that was many years ago and there are now better options. For those of you who have problems that Sinemet is not fixing, look at the Michael J. Fox Foundation (https://www.michaeljfox.org). The site talks about deep brain stimulation, which is having some success with tremors.

    Best wishes to all of you dealing with PD.

    July 22, 2013 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
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