Boxing Parkinson’s Disease: Who is Muhammad Ali’s Caregiver?

Parkinson disease

Muhammad Ali beat some of the greatest in-ring performers in his illustrious career; Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, et al.  However, his toughest times always took place outside the square circle; battling the United States Supreme Court, enduring a biographical film starring the Fresh Prince of Bel Air -actually, that was tough on everybody-, and his ongoing struggle with Parkinson’s disease. A 2013 HBO film claimed that the boxer’s refusal to report for induction into the United States military during the Vietnam War and ensuing trial was Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight; in fact, that was the title of the movie. If you have any doubt that Ali’s greatest fight has been and is against Parkinson’s, all you need to do is ask his wife and caregiver Lonnie.

Yolanda ‘Lonnie’ Williams knew Ali since she was 6 and he was still Cassius Clay. However, it would not be until she was 29 and he 44 that they tied the knot, making her Ali’s fourth wife. Lonnie’s commitment to the former world champ has never been in question; by the time they were married he had shown signs of Parkinson’s disease for two years. Still there was no way for her to know what the future had in store for both of them. To her credit, she has taken it all in stride, thanks in no small part to some of the advice Discount Medical Supplies always gives caregivers. That is, take care of yourself, never miss your own doctor’s appointments, and asking others for help. That’s not to say she learned all of that here, but the point is that it works.

She has been lucky though that she has to deal with a remarkable personality like that of Ali. Known for being a showman, he was never a prima donna. Surely the disease has taken a toll on him, and not just physically. The very vocal and opinionated silver-tongued pugilist who once said of the Viet Cong " They never called me n*****, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father,” is now very quiet and speaks in a hushed tone whenever he does. He has undergone surgery to repair his brittle vocal cords, but is not too keen on speech therapy. There’s no denying that Ali has taken a beat from Parkinson’s -it’s as if his body language has been turned into a jittery broadcast- but then he was also known for his rope-a-dope strategy in which he absorbed enormous amounts of punishment only to finally knock out his exhausted opponent.

Lonnie knows how fortunate she is caring for a patient who never complains or whines, though he’s not the most compliant patient in the world either. His pills may turn up anywhere but in his mouth. But Lonnie’s experience as the daughter of a man who had polio and her own education in psychology and business administration -at Vanderbilt University and UCLA respectively- certainly have endowed her with the know-how to provide organized and timely care for her husband. Nevertheless, she still faces caregiving issues such as depression, loneliness, anxiety, frustration, and guilt. The former relationship between patient and caregiver -in this case that of husband and wife- changes as the personality of the former does, especially if there are side effects of medications involved, but change is not necessarily the end of something.

The face of Ali, once full of expression and discourse, is now sometimes characterized by a blank stare. We can only hope that somewhere deep inside he’s still hearing the crowd yelling “Ali, boma ye!” like he once did at the Rumble at the Jungle, only this time directed at Parkinson’s disease. Good thing he has his greatest fan and trainer on his corner.

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