Dr. Lawrence Elmer always thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a family practitioner.
While Elmer also chose a career in medicine, today he leads a team of experts at the Gardner-McMaster Parkinson Center at the University of Toledo, which opened in spring 2013. When Elmer arrived in 1998, the area had lacked a center for those patients with movement disorders. Now it is one of the leading centers for Parkinson’s treatment in the nation, with 14 separate studies underway.
“Never have I seen a group of people so willing to give back to the institution – to the community,” Elmer says. “And this truly is a community in every sense of the word. It’s this level of involvement that elevates the center to be involved in so many cutting-edge therapies in Parkinson’s.”
Parkinson’s disease is characterized by tremors or shaking, stiffness, loss of or changes in smell, trouble sleeping, trouble moving or walking, and problems with coordination. More than 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, and it’s estimated there are between 7 and 10 million people worldwide living with the disease.
“When the disease was first discovered back in 1817 by British physician James Parkinson, the life expectancy was five to seven years, tops,” Elmer says. “Now, people go on to live fairly long lives, since treatment has advanced quite a bit.”
Today’s patients receive care from a variety of health care providers. The Gardner-McMaster Center houses occupational and physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, social workers, nurses, neurologists, and pharmacists, among other professionals. Every Tuesday, families spend the day seeing multiple specialists, and patients and their caregivers are able to see specialists to address any ongoing concerns.
Special attention is also paid to caregivers, who are separated from patients in order to discuss concerns and receive emotional support and education.
Sometimes, caregivers don’t take care of themselves and feel guilty about complaining, Elmer says.
“So often, we ignore the caregiver when there is a serious health situation, but without the caregiver, we would absolutely lose the patient,” he says.
Helping caregivers and patients through challenges means Elmer can form a unique bond with them. Through his work, he has had the opportunity to share in his patients’ experiences.
He was able to escort a patient on the last Honor Flight, a nonprofit endeavor in which veterans are flown to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials.
“It was so memorable because not only was he an amazing man, but it was the last Honor Flight from Toledo to Washington, D.C. and, unfortunately, we lost him three months later,” Elmer says.
Another patient, wheelchair-bound, was told by specialists he would never walk again.
“Needless to say, the sight of him getting up out of his chair for me and running up and down the hall was wonderful,” Elmer says.
His patients often send him photos of them mowing lawns, gardening, bowling, cooking, golfing and playing the piano.
“There is absolutely no greater joy than to know someone can do something that they never thought they would ever be able to do again, and to know that I was a part of that process,” Elmer says.
Melanie Dickman is a contributing writer. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Lawrence Elmer began his higher education as an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Florida, and he was the first candidate there to pursue a Ph.D and M.D. concurrently.
He received his M.D. in 1987 and his Ph.D a year later. During his studies, he became fascinated with the neurology field, taking a particular interest in movement disorders. He completed his residency at the Sioux Falls Medical Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., and his neurology residency at the University of Michigan. He also completed an additional fellowship at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Michigan in 1992-1994.
“When I began to seek out residency programs, I had originally wanted to be a multiple sclerosis expert, and that’s how I started my residency at the University of Michigan,” he says.
Upon meeting two world experts in Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, however, Elmer instead decided to specialize in Parkinson’s. His interests include most movement disorders, and he has a special affinity for patients with Parkinson’s.
“Not a day goes by where I don’t feel like I’ve learned something,” he says.
He is a professor of neurology at the University of Toledo, and the director of the Center for Neurological Health and the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Program at the University of Toledo.