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Physical therapist giving Parkinson's patients newfound confidence

Dr. Lisa Oei: Jefferson Awards 2024 Silver Medalist
Dr. Lisa Oei: Jefferson Awards 2024 Silver Medalist 02:54

Nearly one million Americans are living with Parkinson's disease and the Parkinson's Foundation expects that number to grow by 20% in seven years. A North Bay physical therapist is giving patients hope in slowing the progression of the disease.

Dr. Lisa Oei leads a weekly exercise class at Piper Park in Larkspur that empowers those who follow along.

"Exercise is really just like taking medicine and we see people getting better," Oei said.

Dozens of participants live with Parkinson's disease. There's no cure, but Oei's movement classes enable people to live at their highest function for as long as possible.

"We want people to know there is something they can do right now, which is exercise," she said.

Her volunteer program came out of a shake-up in her own life. More than 20 years ago, her father passed away suddenly, causing her to re-evaluate her career goals.

"I didn't just want to make a living. I wanted to make a life," she said.

Oei switched from sports management to physical therapy and then worked on Parkinson's research. When clients started asking for help to stave off the neurodegenerative disease, she founded the nonprofit PD-Connect in 2015.

"It's amazing how we've turned people to face towards hope and not to fear," said Oei.

PD-Connect -- under its nonprofit fiscal sponsor, MarinLink -- reaches 350 people weekly with free online and in-person exercise classes in Larkspur, Petaluma, and San Francisco. Oei and her team also travel outside the Bay Area.

Patients are led through exercises on memory, balance and strength, and how to keep from falling. Jim Nevin of Mill Valley has taken classes regularly for eight years and says it's helped slow the disease's debilitating progression.

"I just spent a week working with an 11-year-old grandson teaching him to lay brick pathways in their backyard," Nevin said. "And I'm 10-and-a-half years of Parkinson's."

And his wife, Terry, is grateful for the community Oei has built - from the guest speakers to the support groups - for those with Parkinson's and for their care partners.

"She's so encouraging and has such a great positive attitude," said Terry Nevin. "It's good to know you're not alone."

There's also a new group, The First Big Step, for people who are newly diagnosed with Parkinson's, because the earlier people start exercising, the better.

Oei says there are participants who gave up golf and skiing because they couldn't do them anymore. Then they worked on the exercises at PD-Connect over time, and they've been able to take up those sports again.

What keeps Oei going is being inspired by the people she serves.

"They bring their resilience, they bring their strength, they just work so hard," said Oei. "I do this because this is home. I feel so much love here."

So for providing free exercise and support so people with Parkinson's disease can live their best life for as long as possible, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Lisa Oei. 

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