Former Executive Moves ‘Pedal for Parkinson’s’ Into High Gear

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Ben Contra, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 46, is working hard to raise money for research at the Gardner Center. Photo by Cindy Starr / Mayfield Clinic.

In the summer of 2011, Ben Contra went public. At age 49, after hiding a major health condition for two and a half years from everyone except his doctor and his wife, he came out with the secret that he had Parkinson’s disease. Over the course of a weekend, he told his children, his mother, his mother-in-law and the Chairman of the Board of the company that he had so ably served and nurtured for the previous nine years. As Executive Vice President, he also told the chairman that he would be retiring from the company and that plans for succession should begin.

Mr. Contra then went to work on the business of living with Parkinson’s. Already a fitness enthusiast who exercised every day of the week, he ratcheted up the quality of his diet and developed a focused workout routine that included spinning at the Cincinnati Sports Club. “Ironically, my spinning instructor asked whether I could help him with a Parkinson’s event,” Mr. Contra recalls. “He had no idea I had Parkinson’s.”

The event raised an impressive $10,000. This year, channeling his inner Type A, Mr. Contra is thinking bigger. As a member of the Community Advisory Board for the James J. and Joan A. Gardner Family Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders, he is hoping the Pedal for Parkinson’s on Feb. 9, 2013 brings in even more money for research. “We’ve made it much larger,” Mr. Contra says. “We’re trying to get four times as much participation.”

The fundraiser, which Mr. Contra is chairing, benefits the Gardner Center at the UC Neuroscience Institute, one of four institutes of the UC College of Medicine and UC Health. The event features spinning classes at the Cincinnati Sports Club, with heavy appetizers by La Petite Pierre and a party with Pete Wimberg’s Band.

Pedal for Parkinson’s is another in a growing series of events that benefit the Gardner Center and that embody the Gardner Center’s theme, “Move to Live, Live to Move.” Other activity-oriented events feature cycling (Sunflower Revolution) and golfing (the Jerry Wuest-Pete Hershberger Golf Classic and Putting for Parkinson’s).

Mr. Contra’s story of Parkinson’s, a progressive neurodegenerative condition, is at once typical and very much his own. Looking back, he sees no hereditary connection but does note two potential environmental risk factors: spraying trees on his family’s property with a potent pesticide and participating in boxing and other contact sports as a youth. “I don’t think I ever had a concussion per se, but I did have some good hits,” he says.

His first symptoms emerged as restless leg syndrome. Mr. Contra had never been one to sleep much, getting by on 4 to 5 hours a night, and Parkinson’s would reduce that even more. “With Parkinson’s disease you get up at 2 a.m. and organize your closet or paint the garage,” he says. “You do a lot of those things. A partner or spouse of someone with Parkinson’s has to struggle with this. What is he doing? Why is he up at 3 a.m. washing cars? That’s one of those traits that goes along with the disease. If I sleep 3 to 4 hours, that’s a good night. I don’t wake up in pain, but I wake up.”

Additional symptoms – stiffness and tremors – eventually led to a diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Only 46, Mr. Contra was among the 10 to 20 percent of people with Parkinson’s who fall into the category of early-onset.

Mr. Contra kept the news to himself, not wanting to show any signs of weakness. Eventually, however, he realized he could not remain silent. He had bothersome tremors in the morning, couldn’t type quickly, and had to ask his assistant to take dictation. What he normally accomplished in a day was taking him a day and a half.

With Mr. Contra’s blessing, his company, Trivantis, issued a news release about his retirement. “My personal struggle with Parkinson’s disease has just begun, but I know the support of those around me will help me persevere,” he said in the release. “I know I am not alone and will make it my mission to raise awareness and help find a cure for the millions that are affected by this disease.” He added that support from family and community enabled him to “weather the initial shock and denial of his condition.”

Still, the transition from successful executive to Parkinson’s advocate has not been easy. “You have retirement and your typical mid-life crisis, and then you have Parkinson’s on top of it,” he says. “You have to deal with those issues at the same time. It was difficult. A year and a half after retirement, and I’m still searching. Was it like being in mourning? Oh yeah. Yeah. My passion was my work. I had to basically give that up.”

Mr. Contra has good days and bad, with moods that ebb and flow. “Sometimes you fight depression. And people with early-onset Parkinson’s tend to be affected the most of any Parkinson’s group with depression. You think of people who are using canes and can’t get around. And when you’re young and you start developing those symptoms, you think, ‘oh my gosh, my life is coming to an end.’

“Knowing that, there’s a message to try to do as much as you can to fight off the disease by being strong mentally, physically and spiritually. Exercise is so important. You have to make sure you get up and get moving.  Eating a good diet is critical, as is taking your medication as prescribed.”

He adds that having the Gardner Center “In our own backyard” provides access to informed opinions and care, educational symposia and clinical trials. “The folks around me have state-of-the-art knowledge of where we are with Parkinson’s today. Having a community like the Gardner Center, whose doctors speak all over the world, is a true blessing for me.”

– Cindy Starr

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