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Pastor preaches through Parkinson's

Dave Rushton, pastor of hope Community Church in St. Charles, laughs during a friendly card game with Eddie Smith (not pictured) and Dave White at his home. Rushton was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a few years ago.
Dave Rushton, pastor of hope Community Church in St. Charles, laughs during a friendly card game with Eddie Smith (not pictured) and Dave White at his home. Rushton was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a few years ago.

ST. CHARLES – Wherever Dave Rushton might be at 6 and 10 a.m. and 2 and 6 p.m., one thing is certain – he’ll stop what he’s doing and drink a caffeinated beverage, probably Coke.

And, 30 minutes later, he’ll follow the drink with a snack.

Rushton doesn’t follow this strict schedule for dietary purposes. Rather, the St. Charles pastor said, it makes the medicine he takes for his Parkinson’s disease more effective, although he still experiences peaks and valleys throughout the day.

He carries his pills in a used contact case and keeps Coke and snacks, such as Goldfish crackers, in the car. A music alarm on his cellphone alerts him it’s time to take a pill, he said, noting his grandchildren like to dance to the tune.

“It’s a family project,” Rushton said.

Rushton has spent the past few years learning how to live with Parkinson’s disease while preaching at Hope Community Church, which meets at the Baker Community Center in downtown St. Charles.

His parishioners are aware of his diagnosis. Carol Rushton, his wife of more than 40 years, said people often try to hide their situations. Openness about his experience might help others, she said.

Church member Keith Miller agreed. Although the parishioners’ struggles aren’t identical to Rushton’s, they can identify with him and take strength from him.

“I definitely think he’s a guy who understands what struggle is,” Miller said. “Because of that, he’s a pastor who’s really able to connect with people going through tough times.”

According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, the chronic and progressive movement disorder affects nearly 1 million people in the United States. Symptoms include tremor of the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; slowness of movement; stiffness of the limbs; and impaired balance and coordination. The cause is unknown, and there is no cure.

Neither Rushton nor his wife expected his diagnosis when, during an annual exam, his doctor recommended he visit another doctor.

Rushton assumed he had essential tremor, a neurological condition that causes trembling hands. He was OK with that, he said, because his father lived with it for 50 years. Tests, however, indicated he had Parkinson’s.

Any good doctor will tell patients to fight the disease to slow its progression, Rushton said. In addition to taking medication, he does weight training, is learning to dance with his wife and plays basketball twice a week.

“Some days I feel like Michael Jordan,” he said. “Others, I feel like Urkel.”

Because Parkinson’s also affects cognitive skills, Rushton worried he couldn’t continue his calling as pastor, a role that requires study and concentration.

He also risks losing his voice – a tool essential in his line of work.

Like others with Parkinson’s, Rushton speaks softly without realizing it. His wife said it got to the point that waitresses had trouble hearing him.

“You found yourself compensating for him,” Carol Rushton said. Now, she said, “I tell him, ‘You’re soft.’ “

Rushton is undergoing speech therapy – the Lee Silverman Voice Technique – to train him to be louder, he said.

Miller, who is receiving pastoral training from Rushton, said it’s incredible what Rushton goes through to deliver a message. During preparation he has to redo his thoughts, and for a while he had to use voice-recognition software because he couldn’t write, Miller said.

“You can tell he’s dedicated to seeing the people hear the word of God,” Miller said.

Rushton said he is less affected by Parkinson’s now than at the beginning. For example, he has learned his pills are as useful as a gumball if he doesn’t also ingest caffeine and, later, food.

Because Rushton doesn’t know how the disease will affect him in the future, he said he has opted for a “reverse retirement:” doing activities now – such as vacations, dancing and zip lining – that he might not be able to do later.

He also worries about what life will be like for his wife.

“I think I have the best woman I could possibly have to be with me,” he said.

No matter what comes in life, Carol Rushton said God is there to lead. She and her husband hang on to the verse Jeremiah 29:11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ “

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