Kathrin LaFaver, MD
Kathrin LaFaver, MD

Take a walk in the park. Meet for a cup of coffee.

These simple social interactions can make a world of difference to patients with Parkinson’s Disease and to University of Louisville medical students who will have the opportunity to see what daily life is like for individuals with the disease.

The Parkinson’s Buddy Program, a unique new partnership between the UofL School of Medicine and the Parkinson Support Center, has matched 25 “buddies” from the first-year class of medical students with patients served by the center. In the first program of its kind for Parkinson’s patients, the pairs are participating in a year-long activity designed to give the patients social interaction and allow them to share their stories with the medical students, who in turn gain first-hand knowledge about living with a nervous system disorder.

The program kicks off September 3 when the buddy pairs will meet for the first time from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. at the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, 1640 Lyndon Farm Ct., #100 in Louisville.

Student-patient pairs then are encouraged to meet on their own about once a month for a board game, lecture or exercise class to share their stories and enjoy time together. Kathrin LaFaver, M.D., Raymond Lee Lebby Chair for Parkinson’s Disease Research in the Department of Neurology at UofL, said the exchanges will give the students a deeper understanding of how patients cope with the disease.

“This program will educate medical students on Parkinson’s and neurological disease and help them understand the day-to-day issues faced by individuals living with Parkinson’s,” LaFaver said.

Allie Hanson, assistant director of the Parkinson Support Center, proposed the idea for the program as a way to improve the wellbeing of patients served by the center.

“The patients will be able to share their stories, plus the meetings will reduce some of the social isolation that people with Parkinson’s can experience,” Hanson said.

In addition to meeting with their patient buddies, students will keep a journal reflecting on their experience after each buddy meeting. Students also will attend hour-long mentoring sessions each month with LaFaver, the director of the Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Clinic at UofL Physicians. The seminars will provide additional medical information and inform the students about research and career opportunities in neurology and movement disorders.

Parkinson’s Disease is a chronic and progressive brain disorder of the central nervous system. The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease result from the death of dopamine-generating cells in the substantia nigra, a region of the midbrain. Dopamine is the chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. The loss of dopamine causes neurons to fire without normal control, leaving patients less able to control their movement. Patients are also frequently suffering from so-called “non-motor” symptoms including loss of smell, constipation, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox are notable individuals living with Parkinson’s Disease.

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Betty Coffman
Betty Coffman is a Health Communications Specialist, working on the Health Sciences Campus with departments in the School of Medicine. A UofL alumna and Louisville native, she served as a writer and editor for local and national publications and as an account services coordinator and copywriter for marketing and design firms prior to joining UofL’s Office of Marketing and Communications.