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Wedding vows include good times and bad, even in the face of Parkinson’s Disease


Karen Yates assists her husband, John, stretching his leg as part of his daily exercise and stretching routine in their LaPorte home. Rigidity/stiffness are a daily battle with Parkinson's patients. A prayer shawl, made by a women's group at St. Peter Parish keeps John warm as the disease also affected his internal thermostat. (Bob Wellinski photo)


By Bob Wellinski

Northwest Indiana Catholic correspondent


       Forty-three years ago, John and Karen Yates exchanged wedding vows that included loving each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Little did they know their vows would be put to the test.

       That test would come in the form of Parkinson’s Disease.

       April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month and in effort to help “educate the uneducated” the Yates talked candidly about life with Parkinson’s. Seated at the family’s dining table, John, diagnosed with the disease in 2003, sits slightly hunched over in his wheelchair with Karen next to him. Throughout the conversation, Karen rest her left hand on John’s left forearm with her right hand gently rubbing his  shoulder. Once a great conversationalist, his once strong, friendly voice is now weakened by the degenerative illness.

       “When we said those vows we said it was for better or for worse…in sickness and in health,” Karen said. “We had a lot of wonderful years and if this is what it is, this is what it will be. We’ll just have to make the best of it.”

       A fixture in the LaPorte community, John owned LaPorte Sporting Goods, the same business started by his father in 1953. He was active in community organizations, including the family’s parish, St. Peter Catholic Church. Slowly Parkinson’s hidden horrors - cognitive issues, dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, horrible blood pressure fluctuations, painful rigidity and dystonia, the list goes on - forced John to give up activities, including selling family business in 2007.

       Karen, a registered nurse of 43 years, works with a family medical group in LaPorte. As John’s disease progressed, she has taken on an additional role as home caregiver. “I’m thankful for my nursing background because I think it makes it a little easier for me. You need to have compassion in your heart,” Karen said.

       A daytime caregiver tends to John while Karen is at work.

       Parkinson’s disease is a chronic and progressive neurological disorder for which there is currently no cure. Primary motor symptoms are: resting tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement and postural instability. But, as Karen says, “Parkinson’s has so many different faces. It’s a whole lot more than I realized it was.”

       She added that “People see Michael J. Fox, Muhammad Ali or (Saint) John Paul II with their tremors and such. That is the picture most people have of Parkinson’s. They don’t see all these other things that come with it.”

       John never had the “Parkinson’s tremors.” Instead it was John’s tripping on the stairs at the store that made them decide it was time to see a doctor. John was originally diagnosed with depression by the first neurologist. Not content with the diagnosis, they went to a movement disorder specialist in Indianapolis where he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

       Looking back, Karen now sees several subtle symptoms John had: sleep disorder, apathy, mood swings, anxiety, limited arm swing and walking slower than normal, to name a few.

       Because there is no specific test to diagnose Parkinson’s, Karen emphasized, “It’s vital to get a good neurologist, especially with this disease, because the symptoms are ever changing. (Doctors) are changing medicines trying to get that right mix to help you function. It really affects the quality of your daily life.”

       Karen added, “It’s also hard not knowing what the next change will be. But you get up in the morning, put your feet on the floor and say okay God, let’s get through this day.”

       Karen was surprised by John’s decision to stop driving. “One day he got about a mile down the road, turned around and came back and said, “I’m done.”

       Despite the initial feelings of anger following his diagnosis, both agree now it’s more (a matter of) feelings of frustration. Karen went on to say, “Especially with the speech difficulty and not being able to play on the floor with the grandkids.”

       Both agree their faith has been their foundation in dealing with all the changes brought on by the Parkinson’s. They are grateful for the outpouring support from their friends and family, including their two children, Melissa and Christopher, their spouses, and four grandchildren.

       Ministers of Holy Comm to the homebound visit John three times a week, making sure John and Karen’s spiritual needs are met.

       Friends stop by to visit and bring John his favorite…strawberry milkshake and animal crackers. Some brings meals while others have built a wheelchair ramp,” he said.

       Karen admitted, “We couldn’t do it without faith, our family and friends.”

       Karen says that despite the situation, they end their nighttime prayers with, “Thank you for the blessings today because we have been very blessed throughout our life we have together.” 

       To which John added, “You are right.”


For more information on Parkinson Disease, visit

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