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Under the Mask: Parkinson’s Disease hits home

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A four-year Ontario Hockey League veteran, goalie John Cullen recently finished his final year of junior with the Windsor Spitfires. He will be bringing his player's perspective to Buzzing The Net on a regular basis.

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John Cullen and his father, Thomas.

John Cullen and his father, Thomas.

The grueling 68-game regular season of the Ontario Hockey League leaves players mentally and physically exhausted. It was in my first week home with my family after my overage season with the Windsor Spitfires that I would hear the news that would turn my world upside down. With a first-round playoff loss to one of the top teams in Canada, the London Knights, and the opportunity to play professional hockey in the ECHL with the Ontario Reign over, I returned home very drained and worn out. All of the trials and tribulations of my hockey career have readied me for the challenges of life, but nothing could have prepared me for the news I was about to hear: My father had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

Initially, I was in shock, but it was the fear of this unknown disease that frightened me the most. I was immediately reminded of Michael J Fox's condition. The tremors, involuntary and slowness of movement, rigidity and speech problems are just a few of the symptoms associated with Parkinson's. Over the next week I educated myself on the disease the best way I knew how. I took to the books and read everything I could about it to prepare to help my father in whatever way I could.

A good friend let me know about former NHLer Steve Ludzik and his battle against Parkinson's. Ludzik played parts of nine seasons in the NHL, not to mention the hundreds of games spent in junior and minor leagues. He does not hesitate to make the connection between head trauma he suffered in his playing career and the onset of his Parkinson's almost 20 years later.

"I watch these hits guys are taking and delivering," Ludzik said of today's game. "I know in my heart of hearts (the disease) was caused by taking shots to the head." He has become an inspiration to me because of his determination to help make a difference by becoming an advocate for those with going through the same thing.

"My legacy isn't going to be Steve Ludzik the player, Steve Ludzik the coach, Steve Ludzik the writer or Steve Ludzik the television personality," he said. "It's Steve Ludzik, the guy who had Parkinson's and helped other people."

But it isn't just opinion that head injuries can aid in the onset of this disease. It is also backed by scientific research. Although Parkinson's is believed to be genetic, this degenerative neurological disease can also be brought on by repeated trauma to the brain.

The hockey headlines this year have been dominated by brain trauma and proper concussion diagnosis, which prompted me to consider the correlation amongst hockey head injuries and the onset of neurological disorders such as Parkinson's. Upon further research it was discovered by scientists at UCLA that the loss of a specific type of neuron (nigrostriatal dopaminergic neuron) directly results in cardinal motor symptoms commonly observed in patients with Parkinson's. This study also showed that shortly after the initial brain trauma, this specific type of neuron is more susceptible to another injury, consistent with the constant barrage a hockey player might encounter.

Over my four-year career in the OHL, I witnessed hundreds of devastating hits to the head, many of them resulting in concussions. The biggest problem in diagnosing these injuries is the toughness of hockey players, because even in junior hockey no player wants to lose his job or be looked upon as "soft." The diagnosis and treatment of concussions has come a long way. Even in my four years in the league, the change has been monumental. Each player on the roster is required to take an ImPact baseline concussion test prior to the season, which tests and records reflexes and memory in a controlled setting. This test is then re-administered immediately after a suspected concussion and repeated daily or weekly until a player reaches his baseline score and is symptom-free. Although I know this a huge step in the right direction for the safety of our players, no system is ever perfect and there are two major flaws in today's procedure for dealing with concussions. It isn't uncommon to see a player purposely score low on his baseline test, intentionally delaying his reaction time and mixing up the memory questions. This allows the player to return to the lineup and continue playing even if he is not 100 per cent healthy, because of the illusion given on the first baseline test. It's the competitive nature that lives inside most hockey players -- that desire to play through injury and battle for your teammates, the willingness to sacrifice your body because you know when it comes down to it, the guys surrounding you will do the same. The team doctors and trainers can only do so much, but when a player doesn't tell anyone about his symptoms because he wants to stay in the game it is difficult to treat when the patient isn't being honest about his injury. For better or worse, this is only the beginning of a new era in hockey. The game is ever changing and we have already started to see the change in the game because of head checks.

As junior players in our teenage years, we rarely think about how our actions now might affect our health in the future. My father's recent diagnosis has made that clear because my father is my hero.

Without my dad's love and dedication I would not be the person I am today, and it makes me so proud when I think about all the amazing memories we have shared together. Any hockey parent reading this can relate to the adventure that having a son or daughter grow up with the game of hockey involves. The early morning practices, the learn-to-skate lessons, the road trips to weekend tournaments with mini-stick games at the hotel, tryouts and new teams, having to buy new gear what feels like every year, and the countless hours spent driving and tying skates just to see your child live his or her dream.

This is what playing hockey is all about to me: the family bond it forms, the way it brings people together and how it teaches kids the important life lessons. Over the years I have learned many things, and I owe that to my amazing father. He gave me a chance to live my life. Now I can help him live his.

With your help we can beat this disease together so that no one has go through this alone. Please help raise awareness and visit www.pdf.org or www.parkinson.org for more information.

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