Parkinson’s and the Tragic Death of Robin Williams

by Betty Long ~ Who would have thought that Parkinson’s would have been the undoing of the comedic master. The tragic death of Robin Williams, an extraordinary comic and actor, was hard enough to grapple with on Wednesday as news came out that he was battling depression and addiction. Today, we learn through a statement released by his wife, Susan Schneider, that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and that that, too, contributed to his overall state of mind.
In a statement that she released, “Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.”  I am even sadder knowing now that he was struggling with a diagnosis of trembling of the hands, arms, legs and face, eventually leading to slowness of movement, coordination problems
and trouble walking or doing simple tasks. It is a progressive disease and only gets worse over time but you can live with it.  There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but doctors can help patients cope with symptoms through the use of medications and more recently, deep brain stimulation. Approximately 1 million people have Parkinson’s disease in the United States, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Men are more likely to get it than women and it usually affects people over 50. The much loved actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with the disease in 1991 and is still working today 23 years later.

It is troubling and heartbreaking to think that Robin Williams felt such despair over the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. In and of itself, it is not necessarily a terminal disease. But, it is frightening especially, perhaps, for someone like Robin Williams with his razor sharp wit, his manic jumps through multiple comedic personas and his physical on-stage humor.

I don’t know what it was like, what it felt like, for Robin Williams to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s but I do know that it is not a death sentence. There is plenty of help. Organizations like the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Parkinson’s Action Network provide education, support and direction. And treatment is available.

My heart grieves for Robin Williams’ family, his friends, and above all, his three children. To lose someone you love, at such a young age, for reasons only he knows, is tragic. Someone who gave all of us so much joy and comfort, someone who made us laugh, and who clearly loved what he did (and did it so very well), is heartbreaking.

If we seek to learn from his untimely death, I hope two things are that even the funniest guy on the planet can get depressed and that Parkinson’s disease is not a death sentence.


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About Betty Long, RN

As a registered nurse working in greater Philadelphia-area hospitals over the past 27 years, Betty Long’s experiences as a nurse and manager proved to her that maneuvering through today’s healthcare system can be daunting, especially when you don’t have someone to help you navigate the system. Care decisions, insurance decisions and coordination of treatment services can overwhelm even the savviest consumer. Those experiences, and other more personal experiences, led Long to launch Guardian Nurses Healthcare Advocates in October 2003. Guardian Nurses provides advocacy services for clients, both private and corporate, all over the United States. The driving mission for its nurse advocates is simple: to act as representatives and advocate for their patients. And since nurse advocates work independently of hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and government agencies, they can be a strong voice for patients in all areas of the healthcare system. Nurse advocates understand healthcare issues from the viewpoint of caring for the patient and of the medical professionals trying to provide care. Nationally, Long’s advocacy work has been featured on The Dr Oz Show and National Public Radio’s Marketplace and Marketplace Money shows and various print publications.

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