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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Retiring doc prescribes proactive approach to Parkinson’s

February 12, 2017

- “I feel pretty normal. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next 20 years, but neither do you. So why worry?” 

He followed precisely in his father’s footsteps. This apple didn’t just fall close to the tree; it landed smack against the trunk. 
Tom Sporck grew up in family living quarters above his father’s ear, nose and throat hospital in Wellsburg. He worked there as an orderly and watched with fascination as his dad removed thousands of tonsils. 
Of course he wanted to do that. He never considered anything else. 
He received his ENT credentials at West Virginia University and taught for several years on the faculty. He started the cleft palate clinic there. 
His resume includes fellowships in reconstruction and cosmetic surgery, a term as president of the West Virginia Academy of Otolaryngology and all sorts of lecturing and legislative activities.
In 1980, he joined a prominent ENT practice in Charleston. At 71, he still works part time, peering into the ears and throats of familiar patients at Ear, Nose and Throat Associates on Donnally Street.
It ends in March. Finally, he’s retiring.
A special patient needs his full attention — Tom Sporck. In February, he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Other than moving a little slower, he shows virtually no discernible signs. Medication, support therapy and exercise (including boxing) are keeping the symptoms at bay.
He’s philosophical about his plight. With a positive, proactive attitude, he looks forward to the well-earned rewards of retirement. 
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“I was born in Wellsburg, in Brooke County, in April of 1945, the last of the war babies. We lived above my dad’s hospital, the Wellsburg Eye Ear Nose and Throat Hospital, until I was 18, when they built a house. We had an eight-bed hospital, two semi-private rooms and one four-bed ward and an operating suite.
“Mostly Dad did eye surgery and tonsil surgery. A typical morning would be five or six tonsillectomies. One time we did 12 from the same family on the same day. 
“During my teenage years, I probably watched him do around a thousand tonsillectomies before I ever did one as a resident. I just figured I’d grow up and that’s what I would do, and it has been a good run. 
“When I was a teenager, I was the orderly. I would clean the room between cases, put new linens on the bed and wash and autoclave the instruments from the previous cases. 
“Wellsburg was a very compact town, probably a mile and a half long, so you walked everywhere you went. My mother and I would walk from the hospital, do business with the two banks and stop at the farmers’ market and pick up the produce, because my mom cooked all the meals for the hospital. 
“I had about 130 in my high school class. I graduated in 1963. We had a lot of people who became quite successful, especially in the sciences.
I got my undergraduate degree at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. I was always a good student, but I had to repeat the first year of German, my first defeat. That planted in me the seeds of empathy.
“I went to med school at WVU and did my residency there. During my residency and internship, I had a three-month fellowship at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed. I was there the summer of 1974. We were there during Nixon’s resignation. It was an interesting time to be in Washington.
“I had a flirtation with OB-GYN in the summer of ’69 when I was rotating at North Wheeling Hospital. I decided I didn’t want to live those hours my whole life. It was a lot of fun to be there when babies were born, but I also was there for a stillborn and that pretty much changed my mind. I didn’t ever want to have to do that.
“I met Vicky in the lumber yard in Evansdale, in Morgantown. I was with a friend and his girlfriend. She was looking for boards and concrete blocks to make shelves. I saw this good-looking platinum blonde with a pageboy and nice legs, and I followed her around. My friend’s girlfriend and this blonde taught at the same school.
“I finally got Vicky’s phone number from Claudia. After several discouraging phone calls, I browbeat Vicky into going to a football game with me. 
“I rang her doorbell. The girl who answered the door was a brunette with a pixie cut. I said, ‘Hi, is Vicky here?’ She said, ‘I’m Vicky.’ That was the beginning, and it has worked out all right.
“The Vietnam War was still on. Vicky’s mother’s cousin Carl was Melvin Laird’s deputy. He and Laird were roommates in college, and when Laird was in Congress, Carl was his chief of staff.
“Vicky had never been to Washington. We drove over one weekend and stayed with Carl and his wife. He took us on a tour of the Pentagon. At noon, we met Carl in the dining room. You had to be with somebody with a star to get in this dining room. Carl said, ‘See that general over there? He’s in charge of drafting doctors.’ I asked him what I should do. He said to find a reserve unit with a slot for me and sign up. In February of ’73 I was commissioned as a first lieutenant. I was battalion surgeon for the 429th Engineer Battalion out of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

“I functioned as a general medical officer, like a family doctor. We took care of bumps and bruises and lumps and scrapes. In the eight years I was with the unit, we didn’t have a single work-related injury. But every year, we would have several broken arms and noses from playing softball in the evening after duty and drinking a couple of beers.
“In July of ’76, we went to the University of Iowa and did a cleft palate fellowship with Dr. Janusz Bardach, a world-renowned cleft surgeon. He had defected from Poland. I helped get the cleft palate clinic started in Morgantown about 1976. 
“Even after we moved to Charleston in 1980, I continued my involvement in the cleft clinic by driving to Morgantown one Thursday to get there in time for a 7 o’clock surgery. We would see patients in the afternoon, and I would get back to Charleston about 10:30 that night. I did that until about ’92. Our kids were getting older, and I needed more time at home.
“Roger Nichols, Ron Wilkinson and Jim Spencer made me an offer to come to Charleston. Jim Spencer started the practice in 1947. We were having trouble keeping faculty and having continuity in the university practice, and I’m someone who needs continuity. We decided to stay about three years and if we liked it, we would stay. That was 37 years ago. 
“I’m still editor of the state medical journal. I’m still working a little, a day and a half a week. I’m going to hang up the head mirror the end of March. I have mixed feelings. I think it would be very difficult to just stop from going full speed. 
“Parkinson’s is such a funny disease because you can have so many different symptoms. Then you start to link them. For me, the first symptom was a diminished sense of smell. I can’t remember how long it’s been. I had another symptom, slow movement.
“In the summer of 2011, our daughter got married. When we got the wedding pictures back, Vicky said, ‘Why weren’t you smiling in all these pictures?’ I told her I thought I was. In Parkinson’s, one of the signs is what they call Parkinson’s facies, kind of a droopy lack of tone in the face.
“I had longtime patients ask why I was moving so slow. I didn’t think I was. Then I noticed a little twitch in the thumb of my left hand. I started to put things together.
“I went to see a neurologist and he confirmed what I suspected. That was Feb. 12, 2012. I felt pretty bad about it at the time. I wouldn’t say angry, but I wondered what the rest of my life was going to be like.
“I quit doing surgery, but I still do office work, which has been very satisfying. So the last five years have been pretty good. Everybody’s different. You can’t compare yourself because there are so many different symptoms. 
“We have an active Parkinson’s support group in town. Through Advance Physical Therapy with Jamie Tridico, we have an excellent exercise program. They’ve found that boxing training is very beneficial to people with Parkinson’s. We do that twice a week and she has another Parkinson’s exercise program once a week. On Tuesday and Saturday we have the boxing, and on Thursday we have the more conventional exercise group. 
“I’ve seen improvement, not just in myself but other people in this boxing program. It’s called Rock Steady Boxing.
“I feel pretty normal. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next 20 years, but neither do you. So why worry?
“I’m probably going to start tying flies. I think that will be good for fine motor use of my hands. I will probably continue to play golf as badly as I ever have. I don’t hit the ball as far as I used to, but my other friends in their 70s don’t hit the ball as far as they used to either and they don’t have Parkinson’s disease.
“For a long time, Vicky and I were involved with the effort to cut back the use of smokeless tobacco by youth. The average age of starting to use smokeless tobacco in West Virginia for years has been around the third grade. Vicky would talk to third-graders in the schools about the pitfalls of using smokeless tobacco, and I talked to high school kids. I was active at the national level. 
“I feel good about my life. There isn’t much I would do differently. The fellowship I did at the University of Iowa was for three months. They invited me to stay and do a full year, but I felt they needed my help in Morgantown. If I had it to do over, I would probably spend the other nine months in Iowa.
“During my years in Morgantown, we had a visiting professor from Scotland, and we became good friends. When I turned 65, my son Aaron and I went to Scotland and saw Arnold. His home was a five-minute walk from the first tee of the old course at St. Andrews. So we played golf there and had the privilege of having drinks and dining with Arnold in the clubhouse. That was a life highlight.
“I’m going to get more involved with the Parkinson’s work once I retire. I haven’t done any lobbying for a couple of years and I kind of miss it. I will probably get more involved with that again.
“One of the main reasons I want to retire is my grandchildren, Caroline and Jacob. I want to spend more time with them.”
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