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 problems.

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 degrees.

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 25 years.

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 my life."

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."