McLean County Emergency Managment Director Curt Hawk was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease last year. (Photo by Eric Stock/WJBC)
By Eric Stock
BLOOMINGTON - Curt Hawk knows stress.
He spent 24 years in the Army reserves, served overseas during Desert Storm, and as McLean County's Emergency Management Agency Coordinator could be dispatched to any type of disaster at any moment.
Hawk, 58, has also accepted the cruel irony that as he promotes EMA's new special needs registry database, he might one day have his own name placed on that list.
Hawk was diagnosed last year with Parkinson's Disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. It's often accompanied by shaking, forgetfulness, slowness of movement and difficulty walking. It's most common in older adults.
Hawk's symptoms appear to be mild but noticeable, especially after an interview in the county EMA offices in downtown Bloomington.
Though he didn't realize it at the time, Hawk said he could trace the first symptoms as far back as 20 years ago when he noticed his leg constantly twitching.
His doctor suggested he cut back on caffeine or cut back on running, thinking it might be a case of restless leg syndrome.
Symptoms became more glaring in the last 2-3 years when he would forget someone's name after a recent conversation or have an occasional stumble. A tell-tale sign was being awakened by odors like smoke and apple pie that only he could smell because his memory had stored them from another time and place.
Perhaps the most prescient observation came from his four-year-old grandson, who noticed what the doctor referred to as his facial mask.
"It looks to be drooping sometimes, like I'm frowning," Hawk said. "A four-year old noticed that. He asked, "Why is grandpa so sad all of the time?"
After a battery of tests, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, the same disease which has afflicted Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali.
Given that Parkinson's can sometimes be aggravated by stress, his doctors had suggested he consider taking an early medical retirement.
"It hasn't changed my life that much," Hawk said, calling it an irritation for sometimes forgetting recent events. He suggested it's probably been a bigger stress on him family.
"I'm OK, I deal with it, but that almost makes them upset more," Hawk said.
'Stress is my friend'
Hawk said he discovered something not long after his diagnosis that puzzled doctors. One time he was called at 2:30 in the morning to aid in the search for a missing person.
"I rolled out of bed standing up, got dressed, got ready like nothing has happened. It's just a phenomenal thing. There's nothing wrong," Hawk said.
It appears the adrenaline rush somehow temporarily masked the symptoms. While it has happened several times, Hawk said he understands that's not a remedy he can rely on.
"Do I have an emergency call everyday that puts me in that mood?" Hawk asked rhetorically.
Hawk directs a two-employee department that relies on about 40 volunteers to receive emergency training and be on-call for emergencies.
Hawk added that he doesn't view his job as stressful. He said while his job often comes with urgency, the real stress lies with first responders, police, fire and rescue personnel. He feels a bit removed from them as his job is to establish logistics, especially if an emergency becomes prolonged.
"Stress is my friend. When I get stressed by any situation, the (Parkinson's) activity is neutral," Hawk said.
Hawk said medication has also helped keep Parkinson's under control. He uses an FDA-approved skin patch called Neupro that treats early symptoms of Parkinson's. He said tasks that involve motor skills such as typing are sometimes a challenge, but otherwise his symptoms generally only appear early in the morning before the patch takes effect. He said he shaved off his mustache because shaky hands early in the morning made it tougher to trim it.
Hawk isn't looking for publicity but isn't denying his condition to anyone who asks.
"I guess you could say I'm almost hiding the fact that I have it, but I'm not, I'm just trying to control it," Hawk said.
He has notified the McLean County Board administrator and chairman. The EMA director position is appointed and approved by the county board.
Hawk lives in Bloomington with his wife who has retired from State Farm. The couple has three adult daughters, all of whom are married.
Hawk said he enjoys his job and has no plans to retire.
"I really enjoy this work. It's different everyday. We never know when the next event will give us," Hawk said.