Shortly after marrying John Somerville, his wife Donna noticed a drastic change in his behavior: He was walking differently and his face had turned blank.
“It was like he had a stroke,’’ said Donna, who later learned her husband had Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that develops gradually and causes stiffness or slowing of movement.
John was an avid athlete who had no previous health issues and had retired as a fire captain. He had worked for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue for 31 years.
Donna, a former educator with Miami-Dade Schools, scrambled to figure out how to take care of her husband for the next eight years. He died on Jan. 7. He was 62.
To help others navigate the disease, Donna recently started a charity for Miami-Dade firefighters with Parkinson’s. The proceeds will go to John’s doctor, Dr. Carlos Singer at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“I have so much faith in him,” said Donna, who wishes her husband had seen him earlier after his diagnosis.
Singer is a professor of neurology and director of the Division of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders, designated as a National Parkinson Foundation Center of Excellence. Donna hopes that by providing more resources for Singer, he will have more time to see firefighters who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s and research whether there is a connection between Parkinson’s and firefighting.
“Right now there is little to no research of that sort," Singer said. “I find the question of interest. I am personally not aware of an increase risk for firefighters, but when you think about them being exposed to carbon monoxide, which is a poison in the brain, it makes you wonder.’’
Studies have linked firefighters with cancer, but not Parkinson’s.
Keith Tyson, a retired Miami-Dade firefighter of 34 years, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and started a chapter for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network in South Florida. According to United Healthcare, 32 percent of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue members had some form of cancer from 2005 to 2008.
While Tyson does not say firefighting and cancer are directly linked, he notes that firefighters have a higher risk of health hazards than the general population.
“There have actually been a few studies out there that do show an increase risk for firefighters and Parkinsons,” Tyson said. “One of the big causes of that is benzene, which is not only a carcinogen, but it also increases the likelihood of Parkinson's.”
An organization called Firefighters with Parkinson's in Indianapolis has conducted studies on this issue. In 2009, Indiana became the first state to enact a state law that allows emergency responders afflicted with Parkinson's to become eligible for expanded disability benefits.
Donna started the UM charity by donating $10,000.
“I watched Johnny suffer so long and he wanted to believe that there would be a cure in his lifetime,” she said. “It’s my journey for the rest of my life to make that happen.”