When the doctor told 75-year-old Suryakant Champhekar that his hand tremors were because of Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disease, he decided to take up his long-time passion of gardening to steady them. Now, five years down the line, his fingers do not shake as he slits the stem of a hibiscus plant to make a graft and prunes leaves at his greenhouse. Surrounded by the winter burst of vibrant flowers, Champhekar looks at them with pride, as he’s become quite the master grafter whose Ameya Nursery has become the go-to spot for Pune’s plant lovers.
Walking between the rows of seedlings, he doesn’t use a stick. “Sometimes, I cannot keep my balance but then I keep going. There are so many flower species that I can create,” says Champhekar, whom you will find at the nursery between 9.30 am and 5 pm daily.
Not surprisingly, his treating doctor and the Director of Neurology, Jupiter Hospital, Dr Rajas Deshpande took to social media to write about him. “While early detection, regular medication and exercises are necessary for Parkinson’s patients to manage their motor functions, Champhekar had a rare positive spirit to keep going. He is more active than many youngsters and has won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horticulture Society for being the most skilled and efficient participant. Nobody would guess his condition,” he says. In fact, Dr Deshpande admits to learning some lessons from his patient: “His passion for work, his ability to be content with himself and his mental alertness.” Mobility and coordination are affected in Parkinson’s as you have low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls how neurons communicate with each other. Later stages of the disease affect how your brain functions, often causing dementia-like symptoms and depression. That’s why Champhekar tries to work the brain as much as possible.
However, something else is disturbing Dr Deshpande these days. While Parkinson’s is usually detected in the 50-plus age group, he has been seeing early onset in some of his patients, the youngest among them being just 25. “There are various types of Parkinson’s disease and the causes are largely unknown. However, some are genetic while those who have had head injuries may develop Parkinson’s in later life. There are reports (though more evidence is required) linking Parkinson’s to long-term use of antipsychotic drugs. Other studies show that exposure to herbicides and pesticides may increase one’s risk of Parkinson’s disease,” Dr Deshpande adds.
Champhekar, who decided to consult Dr Deshpande after he had problems driving and negotiating bends, is already feeling the pace of progressive degeneration. He has become slower, his joints seem to stiffen up faster and he has trouble balancing himself too. “Most days, I can’t sleep. Sometimes I am awake from 2 am to 4 am. But since such symptoms can only increase, why fret and complain? I will just get on with my work,” says Champhekar.
A former civil engineer, he briefly coached the national basketball team in the 1970s. Since gardening was his passion, he helped farmers along the Mumbai-Goa highway improve yields of mango and cashew plants. “I read a lot, did grafting experiments and now my nursery supplies to many plant collectors,” says Champhekar, whose wife stands in when he feels too ill. A support system helps Parkinson’s patients manage their condition better.
While Champhekar’s green thumb has been a source of joy to him and others, he is looking forward to playing his harmonium, again a good finger exercise for dealing with Parkinson’s. Life, indeed, is beautiful.