[3 February 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“It isn’t dramatic,” says Dave Iverson. “It’s a disease of inches, a hand starts to shake, a step becomes a shuffle. It’s life in gradual slow motion.” As he speaks, you see a man walking: his hand shakes, his gait is unsteady, and his movement through a hallway is definitely slow. Seen in a series of close-ups, the limbs seem like knots of effort and frustration. As such, they illustrate poignantly what Iverson is talking about—Parkinson’s disease, which has afflicted his father, his brother, and now him.
As Iverson recalls in the newest Frontline, titled My Father, My Brother, and Me, the first sign of his disease was slight: “You’re jogging at the gym one day,” he says, “And you realize that one arm isn’t swinging the same as the other.” Though he did his best, he says, to “ignore what wouldn’t go away,” he was eventually diagnosed, and with that, his life “took another direction.” For Iverson, this included a new exercise routine—he began running daily—as well as a concerted endeavor to understand the science, politics, and controversies surrounding the illness.
The resulting report is both professional and personal (it’s one of the few Frontlines not narrated by Will Lyman; instead, Iverson walks you through his process of pursuit and discovery). He notes right off that Parkinson’s is incurable and progressive, the effect when the neurotransmitter dopamine “goes missing.” Without this “oil” to lubricate the body’s machinery, Iverson states, the parts lose functions, though he adds that the worst aspects of the ordeal have to do with loss of memory and language, an end suffered by his father, a writer and teacher.
While the causes of Parkinson’s remain unknown, Iverson looks at several possibilities, including genetic proclivities and environmental toxins. One doctor suggests that Iverson’s own likely genetic form of the disease was set in motion a thousand years ago, when one of his seafaring ancestors (perhaps a Viking) traveled from the coast of Norway to Carthage. Another says that Parkinson’s has a potential basis in MPTP, a chemical used in a once popular herbicide and also found in a particular strain of heroin that brought on Parkinson’s symptoms in users back in the 1980s.
Along with the researchers and doctors (some of whom have devised treatments, medication to manage symptoms and fetal cell brain transplants to stall and even reverse the disease’s incessant course), Iverson also speaks with Parkinson’s victims, including Michael Kinsley and Michael J. Fox. They help to lay out the political dimensions of research into the disease and a cure, in particular using stem cells. The fact that the Bush administration, and Bush himself through vetoes, long opposed the stem cell research, has set back the work toward “solving” Parkinson’s for his two terms. When Bush vetoed one bill in 2005, Fox recalls, “It pissed me off and I wanted to do something.” He has become a very public face for the disease, helping to raise funds and public awareness in order to keep research in motion even as the federal government dragged its feet.
Now, a brief note at the start of My Father, My Brother, and Me, “The politics have changed [over still photo of a dynamic Barack Obama], but the search goes on.” This search for causes and cures has to do with other neurological ailments as well, including Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, ALS and Muscular Dystrophy. Still, both Fox and Kinsley voice anger over what they see as a needless delay: “Six years have gone by,” says Kinsley, “And those are six important years to people like me, for example.”
The program doesn’t dig into the religious and moral apprehensions provoked by stem cell research (or the extremely convoluted reasoning of Bush’s decision to allow the use of some lines of stem cells but not allow use of others). Embryonic stem cells are taken from embryos that will be “discarded” anyway; opponents to the research see an ethical distinction between their use by doctors and their disposal. The reverse ethical argument sees the sheer numbers of human beings who may be helped by the research as the greater good. My Father, My Brother leaves this debate mostly untouched. For now, Iverson says, “The central question remains, how do you live with Parkinson’s?” And that is where his investigation pauses—not so much an ending as a window on possibilities. And in that, the piece is not so much a report as a hope for the future, dramatic in its own way.