More than 20 years ago, an embarrassing stumble during a workday run led to a disturbing diagnosis for a Center City lawyer: At 31, Mike Farrell had young-onset Parkinson’s disease.
Now 52, Farrell is starting a different sort of run. He wants to be a Common Pleas Court judge in Delaware County and has taken the unusual step of revealing his diagnosis. He hopes that voters will see his experience with the progressive neurodegenerative disorder as a plus and that his candidacy will be an inspiration for others with disabilities to participate more fully in the world.
Farrell, a Democrat, hid the disease during three previous campaigns for public office in the heavily Republican county. He was in denial for many years, he said, about how the movement disorder was affecting his life.
“It was a transition and I wish I could tell you I immediately became noble. ... I don’t think I dealt with it initially. I wanted Irish stubbornness to cure it,” Farrell said. “... I struggled with it.”
He was forced to confront the illness when his health problems became inescapable. That led him to seek new medication and lose an impressive amount of weight: 160 pounds.
His health problems, he said, have changed his perspective. A Penn grad who went to Cornell Law School, Farrell said lawyers are trained to focus on facts and case law. But people on both sides of court cases can benefit from judges who understand what it is to struggle.
“I think that there’s an empathy for the human condition,” he said, “that an otherwise qualified judicial candidate might not have.”
Farrell is one of nine people who have said they plan to run as Democrats for four trial judge positions in the heavily Republican county. Judges serve 10-year terms. The primary is in May.
Farrell ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2006 and 2010 and for Common Pleas judge in 2007. He keeps trying, he said, because “I have always known that I wanted to be involved in politics and public life.” He lives in Springfield with his wife of 18 years, Donna Crilley Farrell, vice president of corporate communications at Independence Blue Cross, and their 14-year-old twins, Connor and Christina.
Three neurologists who specialize in Parkinson’s — Amy Colcher, director of the Movement Disorders Center at Cooper University Health Care; Rebecca Gilbert, vice president and chief scientific officer for the American Parkinson Disease Association; and Andrew Siderowf, chief of the movement disorders division at Penn Medicine — said it is common for younger patients still in the workforce to hide their diagnoses as long as they can.
That’s unfortunate, Gilbert said, because symptom severity varies greatly and many patients can benefit from minor accommodations at work.
People with Parkinson’s before age 50 — actor Michael J. Fox is the best-known example — tend to have slower progression of symptoms than those diagnosed later, and most live many decades with the disease. While everyone with Parkinson’s is at higher risk for dementia than the general population in late life, even those whose symptoms started early rarely have cognitive decline before age 70, Siderowf said.
The doctors said they saw no reason to worry about a young-onset Parkinson's patient serving as a judge. "I would not have an issue with that," Colcher said. "One of the things I try and encourage my patients to do is to live their life."
Typical first symptoms for young Parkinson's patients are tremor when sitting still and stiffness. Some have trouble with handwriting or buttoning buttons. Over time, Siderowf said, they have more difficulty with walking and balance. Facial expressions can be muted.
Describing the incident that led him to seek a diagnosis, Farrell said he tripped while running and “splayed all over the sidewalk." He also noticed coordination problems and just felt different. Doctors at first thought he might have multiple sclerosis and later suspected amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). They knew it was Parkinson’s when he responded to a dopamine agonist, a drug that helps the body use the chemical dopamine more efficiently. Dopamine, which helps coordinate muscle movement, is depleted in Parkinson’s.
The drug helped for many years, but Farrell said he gave up his law practice in 2013 because of his health. Broad-shouldered and 6-foot-1, Farrell said his weight had ballooned to 430 pounds. Compulsive eating, shopping, or gambling can be a side effect of the medication Farrell was taking. He hit a low point and felt increasingly withdrawn. A new doctor switched him to levodopa, which replaces dopamine in the brain. His symptoms improved markedly, he said. He began swimming and using an app that tracks everything he eats. He now feels ready to work again and has started to take new cases. Most involve executive employment agreements.
Siderowf, the Penn neurologist, said doctors are now more cautious about prescribing dopamine agonists and monitor behavioral side effects more carefully. "We just kind of stuck our head in the sand about it for a long time," he said.
Farrell now has no obvious tremor in his hands. He says he can’t count on “muscle memory” when he walks. Instead, he thinks about each movement his feet and legs must make. He walks slowly, with relatively short steps. He has a cane that he rarely uses.
He said he took a test for Mensa just to see if he was off his game cognitively. The organization for people with high IQs admits members who score in the top 2 percent on approved intelligence tests. Depending on the test, the organization says, that may translate to an IQ of 132 to 148. Farrell said he got in two years ago.
Whether he wins the judgeship or not, Farrell wants to spread the message that people with disabilities deserve a higher profile.