Parkinson’s is no match for grateful, globetrotting Renfrew couple

image of people at education centre
At Siloam Education Centre in Mukuru Kware with: L to R : Mona Fox, School Director Joel Nzuki and Alan Fox. It is porridge break time for the small children.

Mona and Alan Fox arrive early to begin another day of meetings and volunteering at the Imara Clinic in the Mukuru district of Nairobi. The Clinic, on the edge of the Mukuru informal settlement, had serious financial problems and Alan and Mona decided to help. They joined the Rotary Club of Eganville and have returned four times to see changes at the Clinic, funded by a network of donors they established. With funds from rotary clubs in Canada, the UK and Kenya and loyal individual donors, equipment and medical supplies have been purchased. These improvements have enabled the Clinic to become accredited by the government and has put it on a firmer financial footing. 

Both Mona and Alan have Parkinson’s and this is their story.

On a cool October morning, Alan Fox had difficulty brushing his teeth. The tremors in his right hand were getting worse and he knew something was wrong. It was 2013 and earlier that year, his wife Mona was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Alan’s family doctor suspects that he too has Parkinson’s and sends him to a neurologist, who suggests observing symptoms over the upcoming months before trying any medications.

Symptoms gradually appear—Alan’s memory has been affected, his toes are numb most of the time and the tremors are still there on occasions. He has practised tai chi for about 20 years and is a firm believer in the power of the martial art to help improve one’s balance and coordination and in so doing lessen the onset of the disease.

The doctor prescribed Mirapex (pramipexole), which has some of the same effects as a dopamine, a chemical that occurs naturally and is responsible for transmitting signals in the brain. When levels of dopamine are too low, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease appear. Mirapex on its own wasn’t working in controlling the tremors, especially when Alan had to speak in public for fundraising events. He had more favourable results when the Mirapex was combined with Sinemet, a carbidopa-levodopa combination, often used to treat shakiness, stiffness, and difficulty moving. Levodopa changes into dopamine in the brain, helping to control movement, while too much dopamine can cause involuntary moments called dyskinesia. Carbidopa prevents the breakdown of levodopa in the bloodstream so more levodopa can enter the brain.

“I believe I can live with it and control it—it’s really important to be optimistic,” says Alan.

Mona had a stroke in October 2012 and was at a follow-up appointment with her neurologist when she first heard the words “You have Parkinson’s.” Totally surprised, she had few symptoms and was given levodopa followed by ropinirole (for restless legs syndrome).

Along with taking medications, Mona and Alan joined a support group in Renfrew, Ontario where they meet others affected by Parkinson’s. A lot of information and experiences were shared. No two Parkinson experiences are alike.

Their diagnoses did not stop their globetrotting and volunteerism in Nairobi.

It began one year, while volunteering at an orphanage in a small town two hours’ drive outside Nairobi. They were introduced to Peter Inoti and his wife, Francisca, an anesthesiologist, both the founders of the Imara Health Care Centre. Peter purchased the community health clinic with the proceeds from his severance pay from a large US company. He had difficulty paying his staff a competitive wage and was about to quit when Mona and Alan and a woman from California, Alyssa Singh, arrived on the scene. Then everything changed.

With Mona and Alan’s help and support from Alyssa, Peter expanded the Clinic by adding two storeys and 30 beds and was able to get the Clinic accredited by the government, which helped its financial stability. Mona and Alan, through their network of funders then supported the training and apprenticeship of 14 community health workers (CHWs) who could visit the elderly and infirm in their homes. They participated in two campaigns to vaccinate children against polio and measles, mumps and rubella. In each campaign they vaccinated over 6,000 children. The most recent investment has been to equip an Operations Room at the Clinic. Mothers now have the option of having their babies at a community health centre rather than having to go to a large government hospital.

And it did not stop there. Now that the future of the Imara Clinic is secure, Alan and Mona turned their attention to assist a school in the Mukuru informal settlement. They are presently fundraising to improve sanitation at the school. They also plan workshops on feminine hygiene and will be making and distributing reusable sanitary pads as well as conducting workshops on the prevention of sexual violence.

Back home in Canada, Mona and Alan continue their full and interesting lives, with Tai Chi, yoga, singing in a choir, fundraising and still finding the time to manage their Parkinson’s. They are busier now than when Alan and Mona retired over 20 years ago. They never dreamed of getting involved in health care and education, let alone in Africa.

Both Mona and Alan Fox agree that a person with Parkinson’s need to develop an interest, a hobby or a project that makes a difference in the lives of other people, to take their minds off of their own challenges. As a 13th-century Buddhist teacher once said, “if one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.”

“It’s about gratitude—when we come back from working in Africa, aware of the kind of lives some people experience, it brings home how grateful we should be for living in this country…. With our health care, abundance and personal freedom.”

Further information on Alan and Mona’s humanitarian work in Kenya can be found at: www.eganvillerotary.com

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