Parkinson's disease and a broken neck can't slow down an active man, who is helping others like him to cope and thrive.
By MEAGHAN FORBES
Published September 3, 2004
SUN CITY CENTER - At 74, Bill Hillman runs daily and plays volleyball and tennis three times a week.
Besides a slightly leaning gait, no one would ever know he has been ill. In fact, he has been active all his life, having served his country as a Marine and taught health, education and athletics to children for many years.
Yet nine years after retiring to Florida in 1988, Hillman faced a battle that challenged his health and fueled his desire to help others.
"I was walking into the doctor's office and he told me to go back and walk into the office again," said Hillman. "He noticed something strange about me and wanted to check it out."
That "something strange" was a stationary left arm and a slight drag of the left foot as Hillman walked - characteristics of someone with Parkinson's disease. A neurologist later confirmed the diagnosis.
"I wasn't shocked or panicked," Hillman said of learning about his illness. His daughters-in-law had recommended that he get checked out for a long time, but Hillman refused, arguing that he was perfectly fine. Now faced with reality, he decided to learn as much as he could about the disease and do a little extra of something he has enjoyed all his life: exercise.
"Everything I read about Parkinson's was such a downer," said the former high school athletic director.
Hillman had never lived a boring life and wasn't about to start now.
To a daily routine that included running and playing sports he added things that would benefit any Parkinson's patient, with concentration on fine motor movement of the hands.
He juggled tennis balls, picked up as many stones as he could fit in his hands, sorted loose buttons and then dropped them through a 1-inch slot in a container.
Then came a setback in May 2000.
"They changed my (Parkinson's) medication," he said. "I became disoriented and rolled out of bed backward." He hit the floor head first, breaking two vertebrae in his neck and causing spinal bleeding.
It took surgery and months of rehabilitation, coupled with perseverance, to bring this bionic man back to some sort of normal living. Hillman stunned his doctor by recovering from his injuries in just seven months. It was then that he and his wife, Carlee, decided to share his success with others experiencing Parkinson's disease.
The couple produced Exercise for Parkinson's Disease, a 45-minute video about strength training and physical activities that can benefit those with the disease. In it, Hillman demonstrates the proper way to perform each exercise and encourages viewers to do them at their own pace.
The video was originally created for the Parkinson's support group in Sun City Center. Since its completion three years ago, it has been shown in 10 states and Canada, mostly spreading by word of mouth.
The format is a basic home video, filmed by Carlee Hillman in their home, with Hillman describing the benefits of each exercise as he demonstrates them.
Hillman takes no money for the video and doesn't even know how many copies have been distributed. What he does know is that it's helping Parkinson's sufferers and caregivers learn to cope with the disease and keep themselves active through strength training and physical exercise.
"You gotta have SM," Hillman tells everyone. That's self-motivation. It is what has kept the 1985 Educator of the Year going all this time.
For most Parkinson's patients, opening an envelope, turning the pages in a magazine and removing money from a wallet can be difficult. Yet Hillman hopes to alleviate some of the associated stress by showing exercises that will make these tasks a little simpler.
"We know we're not going to cure Parkinson's," Hillman says, "but if we can help them tie their shoes . . ."
FAMILY: Wife, Carlee; four children; 10 grandchildren.
AILMENTS: Parkinson's disease and a broken neck.
HOBBIES: Tennis, volleyball, softball and running.
PAST ACTIVITIES: Gymnastics, track and cross country.
PASSION: Health and wellness
CLAIM TO FAME: Inducted into the Delran High Hall of Fame in 1999 for his efforts as the school's first athletic director
ON HELPING OTHERS: "I know this is something I'm supposed to do."