Parkinson's disease may have slowed down Bill Robbins, but in no way has it gotten him down. Not only does the 67-year-old Centreville man still work, exercise and live a full life, but he also helps raise money for research that could help others.
Toward that end, he and his wife Lola and their three sons will participate, Saturday, Oct. 16, in the marathon relay event of the Baltimore Running Festival. Proceeds go to the National Parkinson's Foundation.
"He just simply refuses to give in and let Parkinson's win," said Robbins' oldest son Tracy, 43, of Richmond. "And that's a heck of an example for his sons because, if he can do that, what can't we accomplish? We're extremely proud of him."
For 31 years, Bill Robbins was a medical-services officer and physician's assistant with the CIA, and he and his family lived in the Far East, Middle East, Mediterranean and Europe. Next came 10 years as a safety and environmental manager for Lockheed Martin in Reston.
HE NOW WORKS part-time as an audio-visual engineer for the Geo-Spacial Intelligence Agency (the old Defense Mapping Agency) in Sterling. He's lived in the Country Club Manor community since 1977 and was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1996.
"His life is kind of like the ultimate 'Survivor' [TV] series," said Tracy. "He has to fight every day. But while others with diseases like Parkinson's may say, 'Why me?' he says, 'Why not me?' He didn't do anything to deserve it, so he just deals with it."
Indeed, as a Parkinson's support-group leader, Robbins tells others like him that youth and health are partly a state of mind and, as he's gotten older and a bit more infirm, he's learned to truly accept and like himself. "Life is too precious to dwell on negatives," he said. "Therefore, I try to live each day to the fullest."
Parkinson's has caused him balance and falling problems, so he just began using a cane. But he purposely got a cool one with a red light and turn signals, just for fun. "It's a conversation piece," he said. "And when I walk Charlie the dog at night, it lights the street."
When buttoning dress shirts and tying ties became too difficult, Robbins switched to sports shirts. He also substituted loafers for shoes with laces. But it's no big deal, he said: "Attitude allows me to make these adjustments without much fuss."
Robbins works out at Gold's Gym in Chantilly, two or three times a week, and has done so for 15 years. He does circuit training and uses the cardiovascular equipment and also walks on a treadmill at home.
"He's discovered exercise is kind of like the fountain of youth, or medicine, for Parkinson's," said Tracy. "In the end, Parkinson's always wins, but he can control his fight and not make it easy for the disease. And because of all his physical activity, its effects on him are more drawn out. The exercise has made a really big difference; otherwise, the Parkinson's would act twice as fast."
BEFORE THE DISEASE, Robbins ran in the Marine Corps Marathon and other 10 K races. He's done some eight fund-raisers in the past five years. And four years ago, he raised funds for another degenerative disease, Muscular Dystrophy, by riding 150 miles on a bike. (His sons also helped him in his efforts; Tracy did it in Florida, riding 150 miles from Miami to the Keys).
"As his Parkinson's progresses, he changes his exercise routine," said Tracy. "He's a real role model."
About six months ago, Robbins asked Tracy and his brothers Kevin, 39, of Warrenton, and Chris, 38, of Bristow, if they'd run in the Baltimore relay with him. "We just said, 'Sure, what day and time? Tell us where,'" said Tracy.
"I want to be there for him," added Chris. "It's really a small thing for me, but I know how much it means to him." To prepare, he's been hiking the Old Rag trail in the Shenandoahs. "I've done it about 150 times in the past four or five years," he said. "It was my dad who introduced me to hiking there, so Old Rag has always been special to me."
Kevin said they didn't think twice about saying yes to their dad. "It's cool that we're doing it as a family thing," he said. "He's my father, and it's something he'd greatly appreciate." Added his dad: "I'm blessed with a good support system with Lola and my sons."
The relay winds around Baltimore, starting and ending at the Ravens' stadium. Two of the Robbinses will run 6.2 miles; one, 6.7 miles and another, 7.1 miles. The original plan was for Bill to anchor the final leg, but he injured his foot, last month, when he and his sons ran in the Fair Lakes 8K. He has a possible hairline fracture, and his doctor doesn't want him to stress it further and make it worse.
So his wife Lola, 64, will run in his place, and he'll walk and root for his family. Said Robbins: "They'll hear me." And Lola is ready to go. She already walks four miles around her neighborhood daily. "I can jog a mile in about 10 minutes so, jogging and walking, I figure it should take me at least 15 minutes a mile," she said.
Kevin said the relay should be fun and they all hope to walk together at the end. And he said the pain and struggle of the event will enable him and his brothers to walk in their father's shoes awhile. Added Tracy: "When we're tired and hurting, we'll feel like he does when he wakes up in the morning." Most of all, he said, "We'll all be going the distance for Dad."
Robbins' fund-raising goal is $3,000 and, so far, he's raised $1,000. Contributions payable to the National Parkinson's Foundation may be sent to the foundation, attention Jeff Shinholt, 1501 NW 9th Ave., Miami, Fla. 33136. Write "for Bill Robbins" on the memo line.
NO ONE KNOWS what causes Parkinson's or whether it has a hereditary or environmental component. That's why Robbins raises funds for research, participates in several clinical studies and leads the Sully Parkinson's Support Group. It meets the fourth Saturday of the month, 10 a.m., at Sunrise Assisted Living in Fair Oaks. And he just started an Internet chat room for those unable to attend.
"There's no true answer to life," he explained. "You just live it and make the most of it. That's why I'm still working. It gets my gray matter thinking and my feet moving. I plan to make a difference before I check out, and I want to make people in Fairfax County aware that there's a lot of help out there for people with Parkinson's."
Contact Robbins at 703-830-3823 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Parkinson's Foundation of the National Capital Area at 703-891-0821.