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Peggy Rau shares her walk with Parkinson's disease to educate and help others

There's no stopping Peggy Rau when she sets her mind on a worthy task.

The Tigard resident has spent the last four months rallying support for Parkinson's Resources of Oregon, whose mission is to empower individuals to meet the challenges of living with Parkinson's disease through information, education, personal support and advocacy.

Since January, she has collected close to 200 donated auction items worth about $25,000 for the organization's annual Celebrate Hope gala on Friday.

That is a commendable procurement achievement.

But when you also consider Rau is living with Parkinson's disease, which limits the use of her left hand, takes a toll on her energy and makes it difficult for her to type a carefully worded email to each potential donor, it becomes an even greater accomplishment.

'There is satisfaction in knowing I'm doing something to help a great group of people,' Rau said of the combination of gratitude and pride she felt as each item came in for the benefit. 'It's exhilarating when someone says, 'Yes, I will donate to your organization.''

Personal journey

Rau was diagnosed with the progressive, degenerative neurological disease on June 4, 2010, after struggling with symptoms that eluded a concrete diagnosis. Following an injury to her left wrist months before that never seemed to heal, it was her husband Matt who first noticed that her left arm would not swing while they were out on one of their walks.

Doctors first thought she was suffering from tendonitis of the arm and prescribed ibuprofen.

'It still wasn't swinging and was starting to get worse,' Rau recalled. 'I was getting stiffness in my neck and shoulder. We also started to notice that my left eyelid wasn't blinking as much.'

Rau was referred to a neurologist at Oregon Health and Science University, who 'after what felt like a surreal bunch of magic tests,' told the then 48-year-old middle school teacher she had Parkinson's disease.

The former aerobics instructor, avid walker and cyclist simply couldn't believe the diagnosis. 

'I was really devastated,' she said. 'I was immediately sick to my stomach and lost 12 pounds. I was too physically and mentally unwell to go back to school in the fall. I was in a lot of pain.'

After 25 years of teaching language arts, reading and social studies, Rau retired from her position at Mountain View Middle School in Newberg to focus on her health.

With the help of a medication that pulled her out of her constant worry that was making her physically ill, Rau realized it was time to move forward and reclaim her life.

'I realized I can do something - I'm not going to let Parkinson's take over who I am,' she said. 'I live with it all day. It's part of my life, but I don't dwell on it.'

Rau makes it a point to exercise every day to work out the stiffness and rigidity caused by Parkinson's.

'It's hard to get going,' she said. 'I loosed up with one hour on the elliptical in the morning.

'It warms me up, which is essential.'

While she does not run, she enjoys walking her golden retriever, Zilla, and going on hikes, swims and bicycle rides with her husband.

'I still do a lot of the activities we've always done, only a little more slowly and with more care,' she said.

Armed with determination and a positive attitude, Rau also seeks out stories of inspirational role models who are successfully living full lives with the chronic disease. She draws inspiration from the examples set by Michael J. Fox and Brian Grant.

She also draws strength from her husband and friends.

One of her former colleagues rallied a 'Peg's Legs' team to participate in Parkinson's Resources of Oregon's annual Sole Support Walk, raising $3,000 in a week for the organization in Rau's honor.

'I worked with a lot of great, giving people,' Rau said of her dear friends. 'I was hesitant about participating, but it was really energizing to be at the event.

'It was just so special that they would do that for me. I get choked up just thinking about it.'

A positive force

That walk in 2010 led her to a new path, which would allow the educator in her to advocate for others living with Parkinson's disease.

Rau connected with Erin Cozart, who coordinates special events for Parkinson's Resources of Oregon. And before she knew, she was volunteering for the nonprofit based in Lake Oswego, which offers programs and services including support groups, classes to enhance daily living, educational programs, a lending library, case management, outreach, bi-monthly newsletters, a toll-free help line and advocacy efforts.

At the end of last year, leaders in the organization asked her to co-chair the Celebrate Hope gala, leading procurement efforts for the auction.

'I took the part on feverishly,' she said with a smile.

Since January, she reached out and contacted more than 1,150 businesses and individuals for donations to help combat this progressive and chronic disease that robs people of their motor skills.  

'I can't tell you how many mornings she was up at 4:30 or 5 pounding out emails slowly with her right hand,' her husband Matt Rau said. 'I bet she didn't hear back from 90 percent of the people she reached out to, but when she did, she'd call me. All of a sudden she would just light up.

'It was interesting to see who contributed.'

Many of those who donated would email back that someone in their family or someone they knew had Parkinson's, Peggy Rau said. For her, it was a chance to educate them about what services Parkinson's Resources of Oregon could provide.

For others, who donated without a connection to the disease, it was a chance for Rau to educate them about the condition that eventually renders many individuals immobile, stealing away independence and clarity of thought while also severely limiting activities.

'Many of the people I met were shocked to learn I have Parkinson's,' she said. 'Parkinson's is not a disease of the elderly. It affects people of all ages and doesn't always begin with shaking and tremors.'

For more information about Parkinson's Resources of Oregon, visit www.parkinsonsresources.org .



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