Larry Walling, 50, owner of All People Cyclery in Kalispell, just celebrated his one-year anniversary in his new vocation — repairing, tuning up and refurbishing bicycles.
“I’m fully qualified to work on any bike out there,” he said.
His diversion down a new career trail was not a midlife crisis but a fork in the road of his journey with Parkinson’s disease, which began when he was 38.
The disease, characterized by tremors, may seem a strange combination with bicycle repair. But with medication and brain surgery to implant probes for deep brain stimulation, he can control his symptoms long enough to tune up and repair bikes.
For Walling, working at his own business solved the problem of dealing with unpredictable symptoms.
“If I have an off moment, I can take a break,” he said. “I explain to customers that I take a little longer than the average mechanic out there, but they’re OK with it. Since I operate with less overhead, I can charge less too.”
He credits state vocational rehabilitation officials Marcy Roberts and Matt Wentzel with steering him into self-employment and getting him the training and assistance he needed to start All People Cyclery.
“They sent me to Barnett Bicycle Institute in Colorado Springs,” he said. “Mechanics is a big part of my life now. I can even say I’m living my dream.”
With April being Parkinson’s Awareness Month, Walling wanted to share his story to give hope to others of a good life after the diagnosis and to educate the public about the disease.
“It affects one in 1,000 people in the U.S.,” he said. “It isn’t just old people who get it. It affects young people too.”
A local support group meets the second Wednesday of each month from 3 to 4 p.m. at The Summit. Meetings usually include a guest speaker and patients sharing helpful information and advice with each other.
Walling said he benefits from the group just by knowing he isn’t the only person battling this disease, which he describes as “confusing” on a blog on his website AllPeopleCyclery.com.
“One moment I might be talking with someone in a clear, sensible conversation. A time when I feel normal, happy and witty. At another moment, I’m very difficult to understand. Getting up to move is … different. My legs feel like lead, more like stuck to the ground, frozen. This freezing is a common symptom. The movement in my body has crashed like a computer. I get going by forcing my legs to lift and shuffle. Leaning forward I move at an accelerated rate. The landing is not always graceful.”
At times, side effects of medications or overstimulation cause Parkinson’s patients to appear “punch drunk” with unclear, halting speech or a body that refuses to cooperate. It’s called dyskinesia.
“I’m twisting and dancing in an ungraceful hip-hop,” he said with characteristic humor on his blog.
Since his diagnosis in 1999, Walling has cycled uphill and down battling the unpredictable path of Parkinson’s.
He first moved to the Flathead in 1996 with his wife, Becky, and children Hannah, Andy and Brianna. Walling worked then as a designer and estimator for The Cabinet Connection, and his wife worked at Applebee’s.
“Prior to my diagnosis, I would eat, sleep and live my work,” he said.
His first sign that something was amiss with his health was his right thumb and forefinger twitching and making a pill-rolling motion.
“I called my doctor and they referred me to a neurologist who classed it as ‘essential tremor.’ He said to keep an eye on it for a year and come back and see him if it got worse.”
Within six months, his entire hand was shaking. When Walling returned to his neurologist’s office, the specialist noticed something immediately. His arm was not swinging when he walked into his office.
“I didn’t even realize it,” Walling said.
The neurologist told him that he was 99 percent sure it was Parkinson’s but ordered tests to rule out other diseases. Walling sought a second opinion after the first diagnosis.
“Sure enough, it turned out to be Parkinson’s disease,” he said.
Research has connected it to a loss of dopamine-producing cells within the brain, but no one knows what triggers the cell death or how to reverse it. No one can predict how or if symptoms may progress.
“The brain is very complex,” Walling said. “Neurologists will tell you that we are just in kindergarten when it comes to the brain.”
Within five years, Walling was classed at mid-stage and maxed out on the dosage of medication to control his symptoms. He got to the point that he couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee as tremors took over his body.
In 2004, he decided he had too much to live for at 43 and that his young family needed him healthy. Walling underwent brain surgery in Seattle to install two 3-inch long probes deep in his brain to create electrical charges to control his body movements.
Every three to six months, he goes to Spokane for new programming of two pacemakers on each side of his chest that control the probes. Deep brain stimulation allows him to take less medication and get quicker results.
“At a support group meeting, I was asked if I would do it again if I had to do it over,” he said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Walling eventually decided to quit working at The Cabinet Connection, where he said his boss had always been very supportive and understanding, in 2007. Walling thought he was too symptomatic to not become a liability to the business.
Becky had returned to school full time while also working full time. After graduating with honors from Montana State University four years ago, she became an obstetrics nurse at North Valley Hospital.
“She’s amazing,” Walling said. “I don’t know how she did it.”
With his wife working and studying in overdrive, he took over more parenting duties. Walling calls this time with his children the blessing of his disease.
He transported them to soccer practices and games, hula practices and recitals, music lessons and performances. All became high achievers in every aspect of their lives.
He said he’s very proud of what he and his wife accomplished raising their children. Walling said he always thought he would do something dynamic in the world until he was stricken with Parkinson’s.
“I realized a couple of years ago, after a discussion with my wife, that my legacy is these kids — that’s what I did to be special,” he said. “They’re the best kids. They’re smart and responsible.”
His family supports him as well. Becky and his oldest, Brianna, a student at Pacific Lutheran University, have signed up for the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic ride July 9-10 to raise money and awareness for Parkinson’s disease.
People who would like to help sponsor them may sign up at www/nwpf.org and click on Team Parkinson’s on the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation website. Follow the Seattle to Portland (STP) event to the list of names and look for Becky and Brianna Walling.
Walling said Kyle Worley, the grandson of a local support group member, is now participating in Pedal Over Parkinson’s (www.popsride.com), a coast-to-coast ride.
As a parting message, Walling asked people to have patience, compassion and empathy for people with Parkinson’s disease.
“We’re stronger than you know,” he said. “We get our strength from within and from God.”
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at email@example.com.