For years, Dr. Karen Jaffe kept her diagnosis a secret. Today, she delivers a knockout approach to Parkinson’s.
Words By Brigid Elsken Galloway
Photographs by Billy Delfs
Karen Jaffe is all warmed up. On a chilly winter day in the suburbs of Cleveland, she pounds a speed bag as tiny beads of sweat form beneath her blonde bangs. “Sometimes it just feels really good to hit something hard,” she says, laughing. Jaffe admits that when she was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008 at age 49, she was caught off guard and retreated to her corner. Today, she’s pulling no punches about the disease.
She’s working out at InMotion, the new exercise facility she helped found for people with Parkinson’s disease. The bright, airy studio opened its doors in March 2015. Large windows allow natural light to pour in, creating a sunny atmosphere where people with Parkinson’s can thrive. “Many of us spent years hiding, worried and afraid, with no one to talk to,” she says. “This is a place where people with Parkinson’s can find community and tools to empower themselves.”
Jaffe knows what it’s like to hide from the stigma of Parkinson’s. At the time of her diagnosis, she was an ob-gyn in a busy private practice. Fearing her patients’ reactions, she hid her condition from all but her husband, Marc, and their three daughters. The family kept her secret for the next three years.
Standing Up Against Stigma
Withholding the truth during those years proved difficult—especially for Jaffe’s three teenage daughters. Although she emphasizes that it’s a very personal decision, she now regrets keeping her PD a secret. “When I finally decided to tell, my skills as a surgeon were in question when they weren’t previously,” she says. By hiding her disease, she realized she perpetuated the stigma. “One of the bravest things I ever did was to decide that I would be a working surgeon with Parkinson’s disease.”
Jaffe continued to work for another three years, seeing as many as 35 patients a day and delivering dozens of babies. She found her patients to be overwhelmingly accepting and supportive.
Owning her diagnosis also gave her a powerful voice for the Parkinson’s community. In 2011, she and her comedian/writer husband Marc Jaffe founded Shaking With Laughter. Their events have raised almost $700,000 for Parkinson’s research.
InMotion is just the latest expression of Jaffe’s passion for helping people with PD. Cycling, tai chi, boxing, dance and more are scaled to accommodate even those who are in wheelchairs. It also offers Delay the Disease classes, an OhioHealth fitness program that helps people with Parkinson’s optimize their physical function. The activities were created in collaboration with movement disorder specialists and fitness coaches. Best of all, the classes are free.
The facility also provides a wealth of information about Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders, and serves as a clearinghouse for health and wellness resources in the Cleveland area. “We provide a place where people can come and find friendship and information so they can live well,” Jaffe says. “They don’t have to have the stigma and the silence.”
Jaffe has more time to devote to InMotion since retiring from her medical practice last year—if you call active involvement in two busy nonprofit organizations retirement. “I loved being a physician and delivering babies, but I love this phase in my life,” she says. “I love being able to make a difference in the lives of people with Parkinson’s. I feel lucky that this is a part of my journey.”
Originally printed in MoreThanMotion, Spring 2015.