Muhammad Ali’s doctor: Champ had “a mission” to fight Parkinson’s

Physicians who worked with Muhammad Ali speak at a press conference held last week at the Barrow Neurological Institute. From left, Dr. Abraham Lieberman, Brian Mortenson, Dr. Holly Shill and Dr. Robert Spetzler.

Physicians who worked with Muhammad Ali speak at a press conference held last week at the Barrow Neurological Institute. From left, Dr. Abraham Lieberman, Brian Mortenson, Dr. Holly Shill and Dr. Robert Spetzler.

Muhammad Ali won many great victories in the ring. But his most important fight – against Parkinson’s disease – led to the creation of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

“Muhammad felt he had a mission,” said Dr. Abraham Lieberman, Ali’s personal physician and chair of Movement Disorders Research at Barrow. “Muhammad rose from a young boy in Louisville to the heavyweight champion of the world. This center was part of it. This was his mission.”

After Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the 1980s, Dr. Lieberman said, he resisted numerous attempts to lend his name to campaigns to battle the disease. But that changed after Ali met Dr. Lieberman, who wrote a poem that persuaded the Champ to join with Lieberman and Phoenix philanthropist Jimmy Walker to establish the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in 1997.

“Muhammad stood up to this disease for 34 years,” said Dr. Lieberman, who last saw Ali on the day he died. “The last few years were really tough.”

Dr. Holly Shill, M.D., director of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, said there was no medical evidence that boxing had contributed to Ali’s Parkinson’s disease, as many have speculated.

“If you take people who don’t have a history of head injury, the risk of developing Parkinson’s is about 1 percent at age 60,” Dr. Shill said. “If you look at people who do have a history of head injury – pretty significant head injury, enough to either go to the hospital or get medical attention as a result – that number goes up to about one and a half percent. So it increases your risk some, but it’s not like everybody who has a head injury gets Parkinson’s disease.

“Is there a dose relationship, if you get enough head injuries, does that increase your risk?” Dr. Shill said. “It’s not clear whether that happens with Parkinson’s disease.”

Asked about whether there will be a cure for Parkinson’s, Dr. Shill said she prefers to focus on treating it as a “chronic condition that can be managed. If we can slow the disease we can keep it in a very manageable state.  If you talk to patients, a lot of them would be okay with that.”

The press conference last week was held in an exercise room at the center used every day by hundreds of patients stricken with the same disease as Ali, who died earlier this month at 74. They receive the same care that “The Greatest” did.  The center is located on the Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center campus, which houses Barrow Neurological Institute.

“The care has been afforded not just to the Greatest, but the least,” said Brian Mortenson, president and CEO of St. Joseph’s Foundation and Barrow Neurological Foundation. “That was part of the vision of the Alis.”

Also speaking at the press conference was Robert Spetzler, M.D., director of Barrow Neurological Institute. Several patients also shared their experiences at the center.

“One of the beautiful things about Ali was that it made no difference what status in life you had,” Dr. Spetzler said. “He may no longer be physically with us, but his indomitable spirit of confronting bigotry and fighting the ravages of the disease will prevail.”

In the last year, the center had approximately 10,000 patient visits and 1,000 new patients. The facility in Central Phoenix is typically busy, but a buzz would occur when its namesake came in for an appointment.

“He took terrific pride in the Center,” Dr. Lieberman said. “His eyes would light up when he came here.”

To learn more about supporting the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, visit public tribute area to Ali has been placed at St. Joseph’s Hospital on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thomas Road.  Individuals may leave flowers and best wishes there.

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