Parkinson’s at thirty two

As an environmental activist, Jackie Christensen helped combat chemical pollution; now, she blames those toxins for her disease - but hasn't stopped fighting for justice

Here in America's heartland, people know that the life of a farmer can be hard. They work with one eye on the skies, watching for weather than can wreck a year's worth of work with floods and twisters as unstoppable as the march of time. As one eye watches the weather, the other is trained on the ground where pests can appear in Biblical proportions, ready to devour and destroy precious crops.

It's probably no mystery why farmers look for better farming through chemicals; you can't control the weather, but you can kill clouds of insects and fields full of undesirable plants. Even in the city, we see TV commercials touting one pesticide after another.

Jackie Christensen doesn't live on a farm. She lives in a one-story, brick bungalow in Kingfield with her husband and two sons. But Christensen knows that better farming through chemicals doesn't necessarily translate to better living through chemicals. She believes that her Parkinson's disease was caused by overexposure to pesticides and other chemicals racked up in a lifetime of farming and political activism - activism that hasn't ended even as her symptoms worsen.

Parkinson's is a neurological disease that causes the brain's nerve cells, called neurons, to become impaired or to die. These cells produce the vital chemical dopamine, which coordinates the body's muscles and movements.

The four major symptoms of Parkinson's are a limb that shakes while it's at rest, slowness of movement, poor balance and rigid limbs or trunk. When two or more of these symptoms appear, especially when mostly confined to one side of the body, a Parkinson's diagnosis is made.

An estimated 1.5 million Americans have the disease; 5-10 percent of them are under the age of 41 when the disease makes itself known. Christenson, now 41, was 32 when she first found out she had it.

Rainbow of poison

Christensen remembers turning brown and a bit purple on sunny summer days as a teenager riding on a neighbor's tractor through soybean fields in Jackson, Minn., a few miles north of the Iowa border.

"They put what they call a bean buggy on the front of a tractor," she recalled. "It had four seats and essentially giant squirt guns hooked up to a tank of Round-Up on the back of this tractor. We'd just drive down the rows and we'd squirt the weeds. We'd start at 5 in the morning, but by 8:30 it was hot, so I'd be stripped down to my bathing suit. I had a great tan."

She also had an otherworldly indigo tinge from the dye mixed into the popular pesticide.

Christensen grew up to be an environmental activist with a well-known group whose name she prefers to keep out of this article. She fought to reduce chemical and biological pollution and the damage it can cause in people.

As a lean, mean green machine of environmental activism, she had helped blockade St. Paul's Pig's Eye sewage treatment in 1988, before traveling downriver to Memphis and St. Louis.

As she sat in the dark-wood dining room of her Southwest home, Christensen recalled when she and others briefly plugged up the sewage pipe pouring into the Mississippi from St. Louis.

"The waste water coming out of St. Louis looked like Mountain Dew and did not smell like sewage; it smelled like chemicals."

(Interestingly, St. Louis is the corporate home of Monsanto, the maker of Round-Up and other agricultural products.)

She and a handful of fellow activists were on what was called a boat tour; a campaign to disrupt flows of pollution into the Mississippi River.

"We did the first all-women's action in St. Louis, but a couple of days later we were back to the boys-in-boats thing. Four guys put the plug in, and this other woman and I were just supposed to hold the banner and look nice," Christensen said with a wry smile, sounding as if she was still a little rankled by the sexism in that do-goodery.

The six protesters wore drysuits to protect them from the pollution, but there were only five pairs of boots to go around. Christensen said that because she wasn't supposed to get wet, she went without protective footgear.

"Pressure built up behind the plug, as we knew it would, and blew it out," she recalled. "Since littering the river would be counterproductive to our message, we waded in to get the plug, which meant wading through that water."

She was sick for a week with symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning, she said.

"My theory is that's what tipped the balance."

She thinks that mega-dose of toxic waste helped trigger the disease whose symptoms became noticeable eight years later, after the birth of her youngest son, Bennett.

"I can't prove it, but it was a hefty dose of God knows what," she said of that long-gone day in St. Louis. "But at 24, you think you're invincible."

Still fighting

Sixteen years later, Christensen is much more aware of her vulnerabilities.

In 1996, she noticed the first symptoms of the disease she now battles every day. She had difficulty moving her fingers properly, making it hard to do simple tasks such as typing an e-mail at her job with the Whittier-based Institute of Agricultural Trade Policy (IATP).

Despite new and strange health problems, she helped found Health Care Without Harm and The Campaign for Environmentally Responsible Heath Care, an international coalition of organizations worldwide working to reform the health care industry so it doesn't harm people and the environment.

Doctors were baffled by Christensen's tremors. "One neurologist flat-out told me to see a psychiatrist as my thumb was sitting there twitching all over the place," she said.

After a year and a half of examinations and tests, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

She remembers a neurologist trying to make her feel better: "'Well, at least you're not crazy,' he said."

She's now lived with the Parkinson's diagnosis for seven years. She went on long-term disability leave last July after more than 10 years with IATP (a year longer than her doctor had advised). She battles depression, and she and her family were forced to give up their two-story house in South Minneapolis for their Kingfield one-story because of the safety problems with stairs and her weakening sense of balance.

Harsher changes are likely on the way, but that hasn't prevented this self-proclaimed shy person from taking on the past's polluters and politicians in the present.

Her fight these days is to revive federally funded research on new stem cell lines and to increase funding to the NIH (National Institutes of Health).

She, her husband Paul and sons, Bennett and Alex, her 13-year-old, made an early February lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. on behalf of the Parkinson's Action Network. There, Christensen collared Minnesota U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman in a hallway.

"He shook the boys' hands and said something like, 'You boys have a great mom,'" she said. "And he said that he remembered talking to me in November about stem cells. So he didn't really say what his position [on stem cell research] was. It was sort of like he preempted me from saying anything."

She said Coleman did tell her he supports increased NIH funding.

Christensen and family also met with Minnesota U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton's health legislative aide, and staff for Twin Cities U.S. Reps. Martin Sabo and Betty McCollum.

"It was very powerful having the whole family there," she said, adding that she and Bennett had cried in a couple of the meetings.

"We were just recounting all the things that have changed in our lives. Alex had been talking about how we can't go on bike rides or hikes or rollerblading as a family like we used to."

Nevertheless, the trip served as a giant civics lesson for the boys that also gave Christensen hope. She said she's encouraged that there were over 300 PAN activists meeting with congressional representatives and their aides this year - a significant increase from the approximately 225 who participated last year.

Back at home, she's working to meet a deadline: she's writing a book on what it's like to deal with Parkinson's in that first year after diagnosis.

And she has her first-ever art show going on at the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, 4755 Chicago Ave., through Friday, March 11.

Christensen's husband said there's been an explosion of creative energy in his wife since her diagnosis.

"She was someone who just worked and worked and worked. Now she's a gardener, a painter, a poet and a writer. It's beautiful."

She smiled shyly as he spoke.

Later, when she was asked if she sees any irony in the convergence of her illness and her efforts to stop pollution that's linked to Parkinson's and other neurological disorders, she hesitated before answering.

"I think I'm just a canary in the coalmine," she said. "Perhaps because I'm a canary and was already singing about the issue beforehand, it just worked out this way. Paul has suggested in the past that this is just some higher power's way of slowing me down.

"I suppose it could be described as ironic."