Certified as Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease

Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital, First in Utah, Certified as Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease
One of less than 20 in nation to earn distinction

Eighty five-year-old Joanne Higham, of Roy, has long been independent. A mother of six, she was widowed in 1979 and spent the next 21 years providing for herself and family as a supply clerk for IBM until she retired.

About eight years ago, Higham was having significant back problems and also noticed a concerning tremor in her hands. After having back surgery, her tremors improved and were dismissed as a symptom of something else going on. Higham continued to enjoy being active with her family and in her community until recent months when her tremors and balance worsened. It became difficult for her to complete simple tasks with her right hand, and she had difficulty getting out of bed or a chair. She even stopped going to church because she was self-conscious of her tremors and fearful of having to move around so many people.

“I would find myself unable to move or stay moving when I wanted to,” Higham says. “My balance had already been off for a while, but now it was getting worse; I began falling frequently. I didn’t know what was going on. It was getting harder to care for myself. I stopped doing pretty much everything I used to enjoy doing.”

On Nov. 10, Higham had another “freezing” episode where she couldn’t move. She fell and broke her arm. After being taken to the ER, she was told the fracture was inoperable and was transferred to Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital for rehabilitation, still with no answers as to why she was having movement problems. After being admitted to the rehabilitation hospital, she was diagnosed with — and began treatment for — Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder.

Higham is one of numerous patients who have received treatment at Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital for Parkinson’s disease. The hospital recently became the first in Utah – and is one of less than 20 in the nation — to be certified by The Joint Commission for Parkinson’s disease rehabilitation. Certification is voluntary and given after a rigorous on-site review of the hospital’s practices, programs, and outcomes in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

“We take our responsibility to providing the highest quality of Parkinson’s disease rehabilitation to the community very seriously,” says Ryan Keele, Chief Executive Officer of Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital. “We know that even though Parkinson’s disease has no known cure, research has shown that a combined focus on medication management and intensive rehabilitation can dramatically improve function and quality of life in individuals with Parkinson’s disease.”

When an individual has Parkinson’s disease, vital nerve cells in the brain – called neurons – malfunction and die. These dying neurons produce dopamine, a chemical that is critical for signals in the part of the brain that controls the body’s movement and coordination. The amount of dopamine decreases as Parkinson’s disease progresses, which causes increasing difficulty for an individual to control his or her body’s movements. There are an estimated 5,000 individuals in Utah who suffer from Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Reuben Jessop, Chief Operating Officer at Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital and an expert in the field of Parkinson’s disease, led the efforts in developing a comprehensive Parkinson’s disease program at the hospital. He has worked closely with the Parkinson’s disease community along the Wasatch Front for 15 years and recognized a need for comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation services geared specifically to Parkinson’s disease.

“It was a significant undertaking and included input from community neurologists who specialize in movement disorders, along with countless hours of research, training, and process improvement,” he says. “We wanted to be sure we were providing the very best care to our patients based upon all the evidence and information available in the field.”

As a result of these efforts, the hospital is now recognized as providing the highest level of rehabilitative care available to Parkinson’s patients in the nation.

“Members of the healthcare team – including the treating neurologist, our rehabilitation physician, nursing staff, and therapists – all work closely together in coordinating medication management and therapy schedules to maximally improve a patient’s movement and practice of daily activities,” Jessop explains. “The inpatient rehabilitation environment truly is the best place to capitalize on the key treatment components of exercise and medication because we can monitor for benefits and possible side-effects of medication adjustments, while simultaneously providing intensive therapies. We also set patients up for success by providing extensive education from all disciplines, including our dietitian and social worker. We want them to have the very best chance of successfully managing all of the aspects of this disease.”

This approach proved to be beneficial to Higham. Because of advanced training and awareness, the hospital’s clinical staff quickly identified symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in her soon after her admission to the hospital. Diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is typically made by a clinical presentation of symptoms consistent with the disease followed by a positive response to a trial of medication, which was the case with Higham. Her trial dose of dopamine-replacing medication had an almost immediate effect with symptoms showing significant improvement within 24 hours. Her tremors lessened, rigidity improved, and her walking improved dramatically as well.

“I was scared when I first learned that I had Parkinson’s disease,” Higham admits. “My brother-in-law had Parkinson’s disease, and I saw first-hand how the disease progressed. But now that I’ve seen positive changes in how I can move and do things, I’m more hopeful. I can walk better, get up and down from chairs easier, and use my hand more because it doesn’t shake as much.”

One of Higham’s daughters, Barbara Snitker, says that she and her siblings are thrilled with the care that their mother received at the hospital. “The staff was so engaging and helpful,” she says. “If it wasn’t for them, we still wouldn’t even know that mom has Parkinson’s disease. They helped to answer so many questions and explain so many things we had noticed over the past few years.”

Upon being discharged from Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital after a 17-day stay, Higham moved into an assisted living facility. Her new neurologist and movement disorder specialist will help her continue to monitor and adjust her medications, and she plans to continue to receive outpatient rehabilitation services through Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital. She now plans to go back to church.

“I’m excited to begin my next chapter of life,” she says.