As the owner of a pharmacy in Corning, Tom Rossettie spent more than 30 years filling prescriptions and helping other people stay healthy. In February 2002, however, he began noticing symptoms that indicated he himself might be suffering from a disease.
“I had occasional bouts of balance difficulty. I had occasional tremors in my left hand only, and that was getting worse. I then decided that I better go get it professionally diagnosed,” said Rossettie, who belongs to All Saints Parish in Corning.
Rossettie went to see Dr. Karl Kieburtz in the Movement and Inherited Neurological Disorders Unit at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Rossettie’s symptoms were consistent with the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which are trembling of the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; impaired balance and coordination; slowness of movement; and stiffness of the limbs and trunk, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that occurs when neurons in the brain become impaired and stop producing dopamine, which allows the body’s muscles to move in a smooth and coordinated way, according to the National Parkinson Foundation.
According to statistics from the National Parkinson Foundation, there are 1.5 million Americans with Parkinson’s disease, and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed in this country each year.
Rossettie, 58, was able to work four more years after his diagnosis before tremors in his hand affected his writing and typing abilities and forced him to retire. Rossetti doesn’t let the disease keep him from doing other things he enjoys, however. He does Tai Chi exercises every morning, kayaks on Keuka Lake and golfs regularly. He published a novel a few years ago and is planning on writing a second one if he can buy some voice-recognition equipment that would allow him to produce the manuscript on a computer without actually typing.
“It’s fair to say Parkinson’s chased me out of a job, but … it’s not the death knell that it’s sometimes portrayed as,” Rossettie said. “It really isn’t the end of the world. It’s just a different way of spending the last part of your life.”
Rossettie also runs a support group for Steuben County residents with Parkinson’s disease. Through the group he helps spread the message that Parkinson’s is “a life-disturbing” disease, but is not a death sentence. He counsels newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients and helps them understand the disease and answers any questions they might have about the medications they’re about to start. He and the other members of the support group try not to take the disease too seriously, though, as evidenced by the fact that their picnic this summer will be called the Second Annual Shake and Bake.
“We don’t really try to offend anybody, (but) we don’t pay a lot of attention to political correctness,” Rossettie said.
Keeping a sense of humor about his disease helps Rossettie keep everything in perspective, he said.
“I go out and I tremor in public, and at first that’s very awkward, but if you have the comeback jokes, you can put people at ease and fit into any group of people,” he said. “Attitude has a lot to do with it, but there are several real concrete inroads that have been made with drug therapy and now with gene therapy.”
Currently there is no cure for Parkinson’s, but there are a number of medications that ease the symptoms caused by a lack of dopamine, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Researchers are beginning to experiment with gene therapies, in which they inject into the brain a genetically engineered virus that calms the impaired dopamine-producing brain cells.
Rossettie is hopeful such research eventually might lead to a cure for Parkinson’s disease “so we can break loose and put this monster to rest,” he said.
“In the meantime we’ll keep doing our best,” he remarked.