Angels among us

Photo courtesy of Christina Zahn

East Contra Costa County is empowered with people who continually give back to our cities. It is almost as if there are angels planted among us such is the story of Dr. Duane and Sue Schnittker.

The Schnittkers journeyed to California from Kansas, inspired by the opportunity of an internship after the completion of Duane’s senior year in veterinary school. With the chance to work with all species, including exotic animals, at a renowned veterinary practice in southern California, Duane accepted an internship in Thousand Oaks.

After three years, the Schnittkers moved to Stockton, where they first fell in love with Brentwood. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Brentwood was not that different from their hometowns in Kansas. Farmland and large animals were common sights, and Sue and Duane felt right at home. Duane became a partner in the only local veterinary practice, and Sue made her mark every day as a teacher in the Brentwood Union School District. She laid the groundwork for a new group of kindergarten students every year for 25 years, while Duane developed a very successful veterinary practice.

Each earned the respect of their colleagues and the community for their dedication and love for what they did. It’s about commitment and passion.

Little were they aware that their commitment and passion would translate to their current world of battling Parkinson’s disease (PD). At the age of 53, Duane began to experience early symptoms of the disease.

PD, a movement disorder, slowly but effectively destroys the motor skills and certain nonmotor skills of its victims. Duane, an active athlete, realized it was taking him longer and longer to complete tasks, whether at work or at home. He was not experiencing the tremors that are most often associated with PD. He was experiencing micrographia, where his handwriting would become smaller and smaller.

Once Duane was diagnosed, he was still able to maintain his practice for another seven years until the symptoms produced so much stiffness that he was not able to perform the fine motor skills required of a veterinarian.

Sue and Duane knew that being active mentally and physically were not just the key ingredients to staying young as they aged, but a critical combination in the battle against PD. Duane played tennis and golfed regularly, but those sports became increasingly difficult to pursue. Then in November 2015, close friends mentioned a television segment they had watched on a program designed specifically for PD patients.

Leslie Stahl, the CBS newscaster infamous on 60 Minutes, did a Sunday morning segment promoting Rock Steady Boxing as an important aspect of her husband’s fight against PD.

Sue and Duane approached Joseph Garcia, a local boxing gym owner to gauge his interest in training and bringing a Rock Steady Boxing to Brentwood. At the time, the only Bay area RSB programs were in Woodside, San Francisco and Santa Rosa. The Schnittkers worked to seek out others who might support such a program in the community by hosting initial meetings in the Schnittkers’ home of those with PD.

Establishing the need, Duane and Sue supported Garcia in getting the required training in Indianapolis to establish the first Rock Steady Boxing program in Contra Costa County.

Through their outreach, the Schnittkers have been very successful in promoting support services for others battling PD. For Duane, PD is like shadow boxing — you’re fighting an opponent you cannot see.

Combined with the interest in Rock Steady Boxing, the resulting support group became known as the Delta Shadow Boxers Parkinson’s Support Group. They began meeting in March 2016 with 10 members. The group has now grown to a membership of 80 members, plus their caregivers. Their goals are to stay informed, stay active and stay social.

To stay informed, the Schnittkers arrange professional speakers, often from the pharmaceutical or medical fields, including speech and physical therapists who work specifically with people with PD. From the wealth of information available on the many facets of PD, a meeting’s program may include a video or a presentation by a member of the group who has researched a topic of their particular interest.

Information and experiences shared between members is also of great value, so their meetings include breakout sessions to include men, women and care takers of those with PD.

It is fitting that the support group originated over interest in a physical fitness activity, as research shows that exercise is the only thing proven to stunt the progression of PD. Vigorous exercise that increases the heart rate for a recommended 2.5 hours per week is optimal. ‘Do what you love so you will stick with it’ is the philosophy the Schnittkers try to instill in the group’s membership. In addition to boxing, members have been encouraged to try yoga, dance, tai chi and fast walking.

Apathy and social isolation are also common among those with PD and their care partners. With Sue’s educational background, she is an expert planner and event host. The group’s members enjoy game nights, dinner parties, holiday events and other miscellaneous activities throughout the year. In addition, care partners meet monthly to socialize and learn from one another.

Everyone has their own own journeys. Sue and Duane, through their life paths, not only have made Contra Costa County better through their professions, but they continue to give back through their lives’ challenges. They are a prime example of what keeps our community special.