After Randy LeBlanc was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than seven years ago, his wife, Colleen, bought him a bicycle, and the couple took up a new pastime, biking together.
That first year, he rode more than 600 miles.
“I have no problems riding at all ... bicycling seems to be one of the better exercises” for those with Parkinson’s, he said.
LeBlanc also returned to a more familiar pastime he once thought he’d have to abandon after his diagnosis — woodworking.
A new medication helped improve his symptoms, and friends on an online forum for those with Parkinson’s encouraged him, so LeBlanc, who had made wooden toys for his four children as they were growing up, brushed off his woodworking tools.
He made a wooden firetruck for his first grandchild, Jack Vath, now 2, of Birmingham, on the occasion of Jack’s first birthday.
A picture of that firetruck is the featured art for the month of March, in this year’s calendar published by the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
Its “Creativity and Parkinson’s” calendar showcases the work of artists living with Parkinson’s disease.
The calendar is part of the foundation’s Creativity and Parkinson’s Project, an initiative “that encourages those living with Parkinson’s to explore their creativity and its potentially beneficial effects.”
LeBlanc’s piece is titled “Firetruck for Baby Jack — Built with Shaky Hands and a Steady Heart.”
“I don’t consider myself an artist, just an engineer who likes to do things with my hands,” said LeBlanc, a mechanical engineer who works at Rubicon in Geismar.
Parkinson’s disease is a chronic and progressive movement disorder that affects nearly 1 million people in the U.S., according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
The cause of the disease, which affects the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain, is unknown. Presently there’s no cure, although medication and surgery are options to manage symptoms, the foundation reports.
Symptoms vary from person to person, but may include tremors, slowness of movement, stiffness of the limbs and trunk, and impaired balance and coordination, according to the foundation at http://www.pdf.org.
LeBlanc, who’s 53, was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s disease at age 45.
Only 4 percent of people living with Parkinson’s disease are diagnosed before the age of 50, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
“I was pretty sure when I was diagnosed, I was the youngest person in the world to have this. Most of the people I knew (who have this) are over 60,” LeBlanc said.
But he said that online, “I’ve met people in their 20s, which really breaks your heart.”
In a news release from the foundation, LeBlanc was quoted as saying “The Creativity Calendar has been hanging on my office wall for years and has been an inspiration for me.
“I am amazed at the works that people created. That’s why I submitted my work, to hopefully be an inspiration to others living with Parkinson’s,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc had made homemade wooden toys like cars, trucks, and a child-size kitchen for his two sons and two daughters growing up.
LeBlanc now has two grandchildren and one on the way and wants to continue the tradition.
At first, though, he thought his woodworking days were behind him.
“Just (because of) the unsteadiness. I was concerned with the safety of (using) power equipment and the inability to keep my hand steady,” LeBlanc said.
But new medication greatly improved his symptoms, and his online friends who also have Parkinson’s disease encouraged him.
“There’s a huge online support community. I’m friends with people across the world,” said LeBlanc, who also finds support through the local support group Movers and Shakers.
LeBlanc decided to get out his old woodworking tools to clean them up or repair or replace them and set to work on the firetruck.
It took him about 12 to 15 hours to make. The body of the firetruck is made of cypress from a 200-year-old mule barn that was torn down on the site of a sugar mill, said LeBlanc, a native of Franklin, who once worked in the sugar industry.
His wooden creations are mostly glued or pegged together; he prefers not to use a lot of screws or nails.
As he’s played with it, little Jack has removed the attached ladders of the firetruck, LeBlanc said. He told his daughter, Claire Vath, Jack’s mother, to save them; he’ll put them back on when Jack is older, and the firetruck can be a keepsake.
LeBlanc says it so happened that the year he was diagnosed was the busiest volunteer year of his life. He had earlier taken on the role of president of the Dad’s Club at St. Joseph’s Academy, where his youngest daughter was then a junior. He was also active in his sons’ Boy Scout troop, serving as assistant scout master, then scoutmaster; both of his sons are Eagle Scouts. LeBlanc continued to stay active in his volunteer roles for several years.
“I really miss it, but have fond memories that will be with me the rest of my life,” LeBlanc said of his volunteer work.
LeBlanc believes the medications he’s taking will continue to help him for a long time.
“I hope I’ll have another 10 to 15 years of good, active life,” LeBlanc said.
“You have to keep going. You can’t stop, you can’t give up,” LeBlanc said. “Life’s too precious, especially with children and grandchildren to live for.”