Eight years ago, Irv Scherman sensed something was wrong while brushing his teeth. He felt a tremor in his right hand, making squeezing the toothpaste from the tube and holding the brush challenging.
Around that same time, Irv and his wife, Selena, went to watch a Cincinnati Reds home baseball game. As they crossed the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge from Covington, Ky., Selena noticed that her husband’s right hand was drawn up. She also saw during that time that he was having trouble using his computer mouse.
Irv went to the doctor about a month or two after he experienced his first tremor. It was Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that can cause shaking in different parts of the body, among other symptoms. There is no known cure.
The doctor told the couple, “The good news is, (Parkinson’s) doesn’t kill you. The bad news is, it changes your life.”
The Schermans, of Woodburn, have been married for 30 years, and when Selena thought back to the day of her husband’s diagnosis, she said it was one of the more difficult days they’ve experienced together.
“That’s when you go deep; you go to your faith,” Selena said. “We just have to give God the glory, and we just have to make it the most positive it can be and encourage as many people as we can.”
Such a diagnosis has the potential to devastate the person receiving it, but Selena said her husband didn’t let it slow him down for long. In fact, almost immediately he began to consider ways he could turn the bad news into something good.
“After the original shock and figuring it all out, the first thing he said after he’d had time to digest it was, ‘I’m going to be a positive example for Parkinson’s patients,’” she said.
Irv has a simple justification to stay positive, “God is good. No reason to feel sorry for yourself,” he said.
Irv is no stranger to fighting adversity and emerging victorious. The son of an Auschwitz survivor and a Polish soldier, his family immigrated to the United States from Germany when he was a year and a half old. They arrived with nothing, but Irv’s father started a deli and eventually had some grocery stores in Queens, N.Y., the customers of which included a young Donald Trump and his father.
Later in life, Irv weighed more than 200 pounds and decided to get active. He said he couldn’t jog around the block without wheezing when he first started. Due to his self-claimed stubbornness and competitiveness, he persevered and began regularly running about 70 miles each week. He even ran two marathons, a fact he dispensed with a sheepish grin and joked, “No big deal.”
To top it all off, Irv is also a cancer survivor.
“I’m hoping that God watches over us and He doesn’t let it (Parkinson’s) get any worse than it is now,” Irv prayed. “I truly believe God doesn’t give me anything I can’t handle, and if He wants me to have this (Parkinson’s), I’ll handle it.”
One way he handles it is by attending Rock Steady Boxing on the U.S. 31-W Bypass. The location is an affiliate of the nationwide gym geared toward Parkinson’s patients. Jill Steffey is the founder and head coach of the Bowling Green site, which has been open since October 2016. Irv started going to the gym not long after it opened, and Steffey said after only about two months, the tremor in his hand lessened.
Other than the tremor, Parkinson’s also makes it difficult for Irv to stand still and causes him to stutter. He said sometimes he won’t take phone calls because he doesn’t want to embarrass himself. Boxing helped him stutter and shift around less, just as it has helped other Parkinson’s patients, a phenomenon Steffey said doctors and scientists still don’t understand.
“The more he came (to the gym), the more the stutter went away and the more the tremor went away,” Steffey said.
Because, Irv announces, he has to strive for the best he can do, he shows the boxing equipment no mercy. Steffey said he is one of the few boxers at the gym who can actually move the equipment across the floor from hitting it.
“He (Irv) can’t do anything halfway,” Steffey said.
Irv’s zeal at Rock Steady may have exacerbated a back issue about a year ago, so he has been unable to regularly attend. In spite of that, on a night he came into the gym to do a few exercises, he pummeled a piece of equipment resembling a Weeble so hard that Steffey told him not to “kill it.”
As other gym-goers trickled in on that same night, Irv received hearty greetings and several hugs. Everyone was glad to see him, and his positive impact on others was apparent.
“He was the go-getter, and (acted like) ‘Parkinson’s can’t keep me down,’” Steffey said.
Although Irv hasn’t been able to don his boxing gloves much lately, he still keeps a healthy routine. He gets up every day at 3:45 a.m. and leaves the house by 5 a.m. to go to the gym to do other exercises, like walking. By 7 a.m., he is done at the gym and eats breakfast with some buddies, a tradition they’ve kept for 20 years.
“You’ve got to be active. That’s the thing about Parkinson’s, you’ve got to move,” Irv explains. “The problem with Parkinson’s is that a lot of people don’t start exercising until they get Parkinson’s. See, I was exercising 30 years before I got this nonsense, so maybe I was ahead of the game.”
Having a little humor doesn’t hurt either. Irv said you can’t take yourself too seriously, even if you have Parkinson’s.
Giggling, Irv jokes that once at the hospital, “They put me in that MRI thing and said, ‘Don’t move.’ I said, ‘Well, I have Parkinson’s.’”
Although he maintains a positive attitude for the most part, he’s not immune to the doldrums.
“There are days he gets discouraged like anybody would, but then he always just picks himself up by the bootstraps and gets back on the horse, so to speak,” Selena said.
Even when simple activities become difficult, Irv presses on.
“If my wife asks me, ‘Do you need help?’ I always say no because, to me, it’s a weakness (to have help). Whether it’s tying or buttoning a shirt, it may take me awhile, but I’ll do it,” Irv said.
Selena eventually stopped offering help. “If he does ask for me to help him, I will, but that’s like one time in 10,000.”
Ever since Parkinson’s became the Schermans’ new normal eight years ago, they both expressed thankfulness for the blessing of having each other.
“The great part about Selena is that she won’t let me feel sorry for myself,” he says.
It’s Irv’s determination in the face of this incurable disease that makes his wife proud of him.
“He just doesn’t give up. Even when the days get tough – and there are a few of those – and he gets a little negative, it doesn’t last long,” Selena proudly states. “He goes every day at full force.”
Irv said he has been blessed in his 71 years and repeated a message he’d taken to heart from a sermon.
“Don’t worry about what you don’t have,” he said. “Be happy with what you do have.”