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Man with Parkinson’s disease aims to hike entire Appalachian Trail to raise awareness of the disease 

For years, Dan Schoenthal had been wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail. But when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015, he knew he had to do it as soon as possible.

Last year, he did part of the 2,200-mile trail just to gauge if he could actually do it. Now, six years after his diagnosis, Dan is gearing up to hike the rest.

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects nearly one million Americans. It’s the second most common neurodegenerative illness next to Alzheimer’s disease.

Parkinson’s typically manifests as tremor, slowness in movement, stiffness in the body, or problems with gait and balance. Despite these symptoms, many patients can still live a full life.

In a statement to CNN, Dr. James Beck, senior vice president and chief scientific officer of Parkinson’s Foundation, said:

“A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is not a death sentence. It is a disease people struggle with over time, but it is one that people can still live their lives with.”

Unfortunately, there’s still no cure for Parkinson’s, but there are medications that can help patients manage its symptoms. Doctors also recommend exercising to help sufferers increase their quality of life.

Dan, 56, told CNN that his neurologist stressed the importance of exercising for his condition. In fact, exercise was as important as medication when it comes to managing Parkinson’s. That advice gave him all the more reason to hike the trail.

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Appalachian Trail is the “longest hiking-only footpath in the world.” It passes through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine. Each year, thousands of people try to hike the whole trail, but only one in four makes it all the way.

Dan, a Great Valley, New York resident, hiked the first 300 miles in August 2020. He planned to hike just in August and September to see whether he would be able to take on the feat. He got back on the trail April 3, hoping to traverse the remaining 1,900 miles by July or August.

“I wake up a little stiff and sore every morning, but I stretch out and get my gear together and by the time I eat a little breakfast and have some water, I’m usually pretty good to go,” he said.

Dan is taking on this challenge not only to reach a personal goal and keep his body moving, but also to raise awareness of Parkinson’s and funds for the Parkinson’s Foundation. The non-profit is dedicated to improving care for people with the disease and finding a cure.

For the vast majority of people, the cause of Parkinson’s disease, how it progresses, and how to stop the disease itself remain unknown.

Diagnosing it is also very difficult. It’s not a disease that can be detected with a simple blood test or brain scan. According to Dr. Beck, it’s “often a diagnosis of exclusion.” This means that doctors often have to eliminate other causes of symptoms first.

Because of this challenge, most people don’t get diagnosed until at least their 60s. And for younger patients, diagnosis can be incredibly frustrating because clinicians don’t expect individuals in their late 40s and early 50s to have it.

“Getting an accurate diagnosis can take a little while,” Dr. Beck said.

That’s exactly what happened with Dan. It took him almost three years to get an official diagnosis. He said he knew something was wrong when he was training for a marathon in 2012 after completing a half marathon.

Dan started experiencing shortness of breath, and his legs started dragging. He was doing a 3- or 4-miler, and when he came home to his wife, he told her: “Something just ain’t right. I don’t know what it is, but something ain’t right.”

First, he was diagnosed with an essential tremor, which Dr. Beck said is a common misdiagnosis that patients with Parkinson’s receive.

Over the next few years, Dan said his muscles got stiffer, and his tremors got worse. Finally, it was confirmed that he had Parkinson’s in 2015.

While he has a tremor in his left arm and left leg, Dan said he hasn’t seen much progression of the disease. This is why he knew he was ready to hike the Appalachian Trail.

“I’m going to listen to my body and if my body says to slow down or stop, that’s what I’ll do. But so far, so good,” he said.

This man didn’t let his illness get in the way of him reaching his goals. What an inspiration!

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