Life Does Not End With Parkinson's
In his role as a pastor for more than 40 years, Vern Heidebrecht
has often spoken to his parishioners about the valuable lessons
life can bring them.
For the last three years, Heidebrecht has discovered more than
ever the importance of that message. He has been coping with the
progression of Parkinson's Disease, a neurological disorder with
symptoms that can include body tremors, muscle rigidity and speech
Heidebrecht said the condition has emphasized many of his
philosophies, including that in life's biggest challenges are the
greatest opportunities for growth.
"Life does not end with Parkinson's, and there are many, many
things you can do if you can only recognize the opportunities it
brings to you," he said.
"I've always taught and encouraged people that everybody has a
life message . . . That's what brings people authenticity."
Heidebrecht, 64, said coping with his condition has given him a
deeper understanding of human frailty. In turn, he said this has
enabled him to better connect with the people whom he meets in his
work at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C. and as a
guest speaker at conferences and other events.
"People identify with weaker people more than they identify with
stronger people," he said. "When you share your vulnerabilties,
it's more of a partnership in communication." Not that he hasn't
had his moments of despair, particularly in the weeks and months
following his diagnosis.
Heidebrecht first suspected something serious was happening to
his body about three and a half years ago. At the time, he had been
at Northview Church for 14 years, becoming senior pastor in the
latter years. This was following a 25-year stint in the U.S.
(mostly California), where he earned his masters and doctorate
Over the years, he developed his oratory skills, becoming an
adept and engaging public speaker. At one point, he was conducting
up to five sermons a week, in addition to weddings, teaching
seminars and leadership conferences. He was comfortable on the
stage and enjoyed sharing his knowledge with others.
Things began to change. Heidebrecht noticed that he was becoming
increasingly anxious before his sermons and speaking engagements.
More noticeable was the change in his voice. It became weaker and
more difficult to project. Others began noticing physical changes.
His walking became more laboured -- like he was stiff -- and his
face took on a different look.
"I was always considered a friendly person and all of a sudden
my face looked wooden." It took the concern of two of Heidebrecht's
colleagues to get him to see a doctor. He was referred to a
neurologist, who quickly diagnosed his symptoms as the tell-tale
signs of Parkinson's Disease.
Heidebrecht knew little about the condition, other than its most
blatant symptom -- body tremors. He was not experiencing these
himself and was not aware that his other symptoms were also typical
of the condition.
As he learned more, Heidebrecht discovered that he had been
experiencing some other signs of the disease. For example, his
handwriting had become microscopic and it was more difficult for
him to record his thoughts in the journals he had been keeping for
Heidebrecht said he initially struggled with the diagnosis, and
went through a mild depression. "I guess the first thing you think
is: What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" he said.
Heidebrecht said that after much prayer and soul-searching, he
came to accept that his life had taken a dramatic turn. "Rather
than fight it, I had to accept it, embrace it and make it part of
He took a four-month break from work, during which time he wrote
a book called Journalling is for Real People. It depicts the
therapeutic and spiritual role that journal writing can play in
people's lives. The book has since been accepted by an agent and is
currently being marketed for publication.
Upon his return, Heidebrecht continued to serve as senior pastor
at Northview before resigning from the position one and a half
years ago. He felt that he could no longer keep up with the demands
of the job.
He now serves as associate pastor of discipleship and prayer.
Justyn Rees is now the senior pastor.
"The church has been fantastic, supportive all the way, and the
job I have right now is a great job," Heidebrecht said.
He turned down speaking engagements for awhile following his
diagnosis, but has since returned to the public-speaking stage. His
life with Parkinson's is often a theme of his presentations.
"I'm trying to help people realize that everyone has a life
message that that which we try to fight we need to embrace," he
said. However, Heidebrecht said that it's not necessarily his words
that will have the most impact on people.
"I think that when all is said and done, people will forget my
sermons, but they'll remember how Vern dealt with life."