For Kadlec speech pathologist, Parkinson’s class is personal

Their voices filled up the small room.

“Ahhh,” they said, all at once, loud and steady.

For five seconds.

Ten seconds.

Fifteen seconds.

“OK,” Jenny Davis said, when the clock hit 20 seconds. “Good!”

They’d made their goal. They broke into smiles.

It might not seem like much, but holding a note for that long and at that volume can be a challenge for people with Parkinson’s disease.

The chronic and progressive disorder involves the death of nerve cells in the brain.

Symptoms range from tremors, slowed movement and stiffness of limbs and trunk to trouble with balance and coordination.

The disease also often affects speech, with patients’ voices becoming softer and at times difficult to understand.

Davis, a speech language pathologist at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, works with patients to combat that loss.

Along with one-on-one sessions, she runs a group called The LOUD Crowd, designed to help patients maintain gains they’ve made.

It’s work that’s close to her heart. Davis has Parkinson’s; she was diagnosed at age 41.

“As a person with Parkinson’s, I know the impact that losing your communication skills can have on your life,” she told the Herald. “It makes a big difference to me to be able to help other people with Parkinson’s maintain that communication and improve their voice skills.”

Group sessions are offered twice a month. They’re part of the SPEAK OUT! voice therapy program.

A handful of members showed up to a recent session, at the Kadlec Healthplex on Lee Boulevard.

They practiced holding the “ahhh.” They fluctuated their volume, growing louder and softer on command.

They did other voice exercises too. At one point, Davis passed around a workbook with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and they took turns reading paragraphs.

Most of the patients in the session had been coming for a while.

“You become energized,” said Ken Hannah, 77, of Richland, who’s been attending about six months.

“After you pump your lungs up and down — it’s helped quite a bit. My wife said I needed it and she’s noticed a big difference,” he said.

At first, Hannah said, he couldn’t hold the “ahhh” for very long. But he’s now added on several seconds.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about three years ago.

Fellow group member Kent Tucker was diagnosed in 2010.

Like Hannah, he couldn’t hold the sound for long when he started working with Davis.

People had trouble understanding him, he said. Drive-thru restaurants, in particular, were difficult.

“It was really frustrating. I’d have to yell at the top of my voice and they still couldn’t hear me,” said Tucker, 70, of Kennewick.

But Davis’ help has made a difference, he said. He was part of her first group class.

“I can’t say enough good about her. I really admire her for what she does and how she can relate to all of us,” he said. “It’s tremendous.”

Davis didn’t set out to become a speech language pathologist. She went to Washington State University intending to study nursing, but eventually switched majors.

She started out working with children. Then came her diagnosis.

“My voice started to fail very early on,” Davis said. She had to go through voice therapy — a jarring experience for someone used to being the therapist.

But it also brought insight and inspiration. “At that point, I started thinking, ‘I can relate to this’” she said.

Davis began working one-on-one with Parkinson’s patients. About four years ago, she added the group sessions.

Her own diagnosis was “a big surprise,” she said. “I was in denial for a long time. It was hard to accept.”

But her voice declining was a motivator, “because professionally that was not cool. Really not helpful. It’s like a hairstylist with bad hair,” she said.

She got to work.

“At a certain point when something happens, you have to take that deep breath and say, ‘What do I do now?’ You have to choose: Am I going to move forward with this or am I going to let this keep me from moving forward?” Davis said. “I decided to embrace it and do something with it.”

Parkinson’s isn’t the only health challenge Davis has faced. About two years after her Parkinson’s diagnosis, she learned she had Stage 3 colon cancer.

Surgery and chemotherapy followed.

Even in the midst of treatment, she found something of a silver lining. It put her Parkinson’s in perspective, she said.

She began writing about her experiences on her blog, www.3000sunsets.org.

The blog’s name is a nod to the amount of time between Davis’ cancer diagnosis and her youngest child’s high school graduation — a milestone the mother of six daughters hoped to hit.

Davis now is six years cancer free and that daughter is a freshman in high school.

Davis’ experiences seemed to have taught her about living in the moment, about cherishing the here and now.

“If you spend your life worried about, ‘I have Parkinson’s,’ ‘I have cancer,’ whatever it happens to be, and you’re so worried about whether or not you’re going to get to this point down the road ... what you’re going to end up doing is, you’re going to miss those 3,000 sunsets in between,” she said. “You have today. What can you take into that sunset, what can you take into your day that you can say, ‘This was good?’ ”

For Davis, she takes her voice work. Her one-one-one sessions, her classes.

At the Healthplex, patients sat in chairs in a semi-circle, with Davis at the front of the room.

She had them count off loudly by 5s. She had them read Lincoln’s famous speech.

She had them hold the “ahhh.”

Then she had them hold the “ahhh,” while they moved their arms up and down. Their voices were loud, hardy.

Davis seemed pleased. “Did that change the way you were breathing?” she asked.

There were nods all around.


Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald