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Debra Millegan faces down Parkinson's disease

West Linn woman sets gutsy, inspiring example for dealing with illness
by: vern uyetake, Debra Millegan has found some creative ways to deal with her battle against Parkinson's disease.

Debra Millegan has many ways in which she deals with Parkinson's disease.

One way was dressing up like a zombie last Friday the 13th and dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" along with the rest of her exercise class.

In their photo they didn't look too scary, because they were all wearing such big smiles. Still, Millegan and her pals put the fear of Parkinson's disease on the run.

'We were very proud of ourselves,' said Millegan, a resident of West Linn. 'We had a lot of fun.'

Millegan and her classmates did such a good job that they might perform at Celebrate Hope, the big fundraising gala of Parkinson's Resources of Oregon (PRO) that will be held May 18 at the Oregon Convention Center.

Millegan does a good job of battling Parkinson's disease every day of her life, too.

'Debra proves that you can manage Parkinson's disease,' said Erin Cozart, development manager for PRO, who chose Millegan to help her produce the gala. 'It's exciting to see people like her become experts in dealing with disease. She's able to maintain a good quality of life.'

Millegan can be proud of much more than her skill as a dancing zombie. She has not only shown intelligence and true grit in her own battle with Parkinson's, she also has reached out to others suffering from the disease and helped them cope with their own struggles.

Parkinson's disease snuck up on Millegan 11 years ago.

'I've had a tremor since 2001,' she said. 'It was first diagnosed as an essential tremor, which is something that runs in my family.

'Then, in 2008, a neurologist diagnosed Parkinson's disease. I refused to believe it so I got a second opinion at OHSU. The doctor told me, 'Darn it! You have Parkinson's disease.'"

Millegan was devastated at first, but she soon turned the tables on the dreadful news.

'It turned out to be a great thing,' she said. 'It changed my life. I got involved with a newly diagnosed Parkinson's group meeting and met a man who teaches pilates. I thought, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'

'I got my pilates instructor certification last Thursday. It's something I'm not sure I would have done if I hadn't gotten Parkinson's disease.'

Millegan has received tremendous help in her effort to lead a normal life in the face of a devastating disease.

'I've met some very nice people,' she said. 'A lot of friends have been there for me. Jeannie Chrisman (pilates instructor) has been really helpful.'

There has also been Parkinson's Resources of Oregon, an organization that provides education and counseling to people suffering from Parkinson's disease. PRO has not only helped Millegan but also her husband and two teenage sons.

Helping Millegan from the start has been her best friend, Rose Money Rooper.

They take the meaning of the word 'friendship' to a new level, and the most remarkable thing about it is that, while Rooper has helped Millegan deal with Parkinson's, Millegan has helped Rooper deal with cancer.

'Sometimes you meet people that you connect with instantly,' Rooper said. 'Debra and I have so many connections that it's weird. When I was dealing with breast cancer, she was with me every step of the way. She took wires out of my body and, when I had to go to Seattle for treatment, she visited me five times. She was there when I had emergency surgery.

'When the doctors asked questions, I was unable to speak. But Debra could answer all of their questions about me. I thought, 'She really knows me!'"

Millegan also served as a great inspiration to her friend.

'I've seen Debra push herself to try new things,' Rooper said. 'She does not let her disease get in the way of her life. Debra trained for a half-marathon and it took all she had. But she did it.'

Millegan is now focusing her considerable energy on promoting the Celebrate Hope gala. She is an excellent fundraiser (she once helped raise $300,000 for Riverdale School) and has been part of the gala committee for the past four years.

'There are worse things to get than Parkinson's disease,' Millegan said. 'It is not a life or death sentence. You just need to live with it and use what you have.'

Millegan's perspective on Parkinson's disease is truly remarkable.

'Before I had Parkinson's, I kind of lost me,' she said. 'When I found that I had Parkinson's, I found direction for my life.

'Just like everyone who has Parkinson's disease, I'm hoping for a cure. But until then I'm not doing to let it define who I am.'

For more information about Parkinson's Resources of Oregon and Celebrate Hope, visit parkinsonsresources.org.




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