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Susan is a mother of two, badass engineer and when she isn't taking life head on she is battling Parkinson's Disease. Diagnosed when her daughters were young, Susan set out to show them that no challenge was too great and to set an example of strength and fight. Along her journey, she was directed to the Rock Steady Program where she found a community of support and her love of boxing.
I have always used the words of others who said I could/should not reach for a goal because of my gender as motivation to reach that goal. I have taken the path I wanted to take, not the path others told me I should take. Sometimes that path was the conventional one and other times it was not.
Growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis in the 60s and 70s, I never understood why I could not attempt anything I wanted to simply because I was a girl. When I was a little girl my grandfather nicknamed me Susan B Anthony because I wanted to be the first female cadet at the air force academy. Unfortunately I was born about 6 years too late. Someone else beat me to it.
The idea that anything except an individual’s abilities dictates which paths are open and which are closed to that individual has always rubbed me the wrong way. I believe every individual is unique and deserves to pursue his/her dreams as long as they stay within societal ethics and morality. I am an individualist and this belief still drives me to this day.
In college I earned degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and turned those into a career as a control systems engineer. I started my career at a small consulting firm in Tallahassee. My boss was a terrific mentor and I learned a lot from him. However, when I went to site, I was the only female working in the production area and the head of maintenance felt I needed a babysitter and proceeded to assign an engineer to stay with me. The reasoning, I was a woman.
Outside of work I did not fit in very well either, there were very few people I could relate to because of my field. The breaking point came when I was at a barbeque and I was talking to an older couple. They asked me what I did. When I responded that I was an electrical engineer, both the man and woman looked at me as though I had grown another head. Then in a thick southern accent the man said “You must be smart.” And the woman said, “You are a role model for young girls everywhere.”
I did not want to be known just for being smart and I sure as heck did not want to be a role model. The last thing I needed was to be put on a pedestal. I simply wanted to be the best engineer I could be and I wanted to connect with other people like me. I wanted to have friends that were young and single. I also wanted a job that offered me more opportunities. It was time to move on.
Eventually I found a job working at a rubber compounding plant in South Carolina for a major tire manufacturer. One of the possibilities that had attracted me was the potential opportunity to work overseas for a period of time. A year and a half later I was asked to go to France as a trainee for six months to be help with the design of a new production line to be added here in the United States.
While I was in France testing the controls at the vendors facility, I saw safety flaws in the design that would pose a serious danger to anyone working on the line. I spent HOURS attempting to explain my stance to co-workers. At first none of them understood what my objections were but I was able to get them to agree that maybe, just maybe, I had a point. But they were not going to change the design. In the end, I refused to accept the design and my boss in France overrode my objections allowing the design to be accepted. I lost the battle in France, but won the war in the United States when the plant maintenance department agreed with me and insisted that the vendor's design be changed.
In France, I may have struggled to have my views understood but I met the man whom I would marry. He was the only American working for the vendor on the same project. Two years after we returned to the States we married and he moved from New Jersey To South Carolina to be with me. And after our first daughter was born we moved to Pittsburgh and I stayed home and became the traditional Mom. We had another daughter and I continued my Mom role, working intermittently as a contractor. For the most part we were the conventional suburban family.
In 2004 my world changed dramatically when a persistent tremor in my right hand was diagnosed as probable early onset Parkinson’s Disease (aka PD). Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurological disorder that causes tremors and other motion control issues for the patient. My oldest daughter was just starting fourth grade and my youngest daughter was just starting first grade. I quickly decided that I would do anything in my power to keep myself active and keep the disease at bay. I did not want my daughters’ memories of me to be those of a person defined by a disease. I wanted them to remember me as me. I also wanted my daughters to see that difficulties can be overcome and you cannot let anything stop you.
I have watched my daughters grow up from little girls to big girls to teenage girls to amazing young women. I cannot begin to say how proud I am of them. During this time my diagnosis has been confirmed as early onset Parkinson’s. I am a lucky one as it is still a very mild form. Parkinson’s disease predisposes a person to depression and that has been a challenge for me. To help overcome, my neurologist suggested I visit a counselor and also try a program called Rock Steady. That was a turning point for me.
Rock Steady is a boxing class for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). The Rock Steady program is specifically designed to improve the quality of life for people with PD by mitigating the symptoms using boxing. Boxing helps PD patients in two ways. Firstly, the whole body coordination required for boxing helps combat the loss of movement control prevalent in PD patients. Secondly, intense exercise has been found to help the brain use dopamine more efficiently and PD patients do not produce enough dopamine, so using the dopamine more efficiently results in an improvement in symptoms.
I began The Rock Steady program at Fit4Boxing in Pittsburgh and I can speak to how it does much more than just help with the physical symptoms I am fighting to overcome. Every Thursday before the class starts there is a discussion and anyone who has read about or heard about anything that might help others is free to bring it up for discussion. Several members of the group have a medical background and are able to explain why certain protocols are used. The staff has worked hard to cultivate a family like atmosphere in which every person is valued. All the participants in the program support each other.
I have found that boxing has helped alleviate my physical symptoms while the support and camaraderie of my fellow patients and the staff at Fit4Boxing has improved my mental state. It’s pretty incredible that the sport that has been blamed for multiple cases of PD, including Muhammad Ali’s, has also been found to be one of the best activities for helping people cope with the disease. I doubt that I will ever actually participate in a true boxing match. But by practicing as though I will, I hope to prevent or slow further progression of the disease. My end goal is TO KICK PARKINSON’S ASS.