When sports broadcaster Dave Clark was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the same age as his father – 44 – he knew he couldn’t keep it a secret. His dad, Alan, had been so worried about the stigma around it at the time that he didn’t tell anyone and eventually took his own life.
Alan Clark, was a sales rep in Bradford when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a neurological disorder that attacks the area of the brain which controls movement. It was the 1980s and he was worried he would lose his job if he disclosed he had the disease.
He continued to work full-time to provide for his wife and two sons. Even when he turned up to meetings with hands that shook so much he was accused of being drunk, he still refused to reveal what was going on.
Alan’s son, Dave, a Sky Sports presenter, says: “He went to the doctors by himself, didn’t eat with the family because he was worried about his shakes. He didn’t tell anyone he had Parkinson’s, including me.
“It didn’t end well for my dad. He died when he was 52, took his own life.”
Unknown to Alan, his son had discovered this closely guarded secret as a teenager. Dave happened to watch a documentary, which explained the condition, while he was off sick from school.
It said Parkinson’s causes symptoms such as shaking and slowness of movement due to a reduction of dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine helps transmit signals between nerve cells.
Dave says: “He was frightened to be labelled as disabled and lose his job. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up as a kid and his job was vital. The whole thing was very sad.”
Dave, a broadcaster for more than 30 years, has covered World Cups, Olympics and a plethora of other sports, more recently becoming synonymous with TV darts coverage.
But decades after his father’s death, he started to suspect something may be up.
Moments before a live television broadcast, his hand excessively shook so he couldn’t put on his tie and cufflinks. He hid in a cupboard to escape the producer who was shouting at him to hurry up. Dave managed to sort himself out with moments to spare.
Although Parkinson’s UK said it’s very rare for the condition to be passed on genetically, Dave suspected he may have the same illness as his father and visited a specialist.
But the tactless way his then-consultant delivered the diagnosis in 2011 still shocks him.
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“He said: ‘Have you got a big mortgage? How many kids have you got? Sorry to say you’ve got Parkinson’s’.
“That was a lousy way of telling it, as if he thought he was God.”
Dave was devastated by the diagnosis, but determined to deal with it differently to his father and not keep it a secret.
“I walked away from the specialist, across Wimbledon Common, and tears were running down my cheeks. But the sun was shining and I thought, the sun’s going to shine for a bit longer yet.”
He allowed himself 24 hours to feel down about the news, although admits the first three months were hard to get through.
Dave and his wife Carolyn, a clinical psychologist decided to tell their sons, then aged seven and four, that their dad had the neurological condition as soon as questions arose, to make it a normal part of family life. Carolyn has since helped to write a guide on talking to children about Parkinson’s.
“We’ve been very open with the kids from day one because, again, just what happened with my dad, just keeping a secret. And I think it’s important that they knew about it.
“They know I’m getting worse and they know it’s very serious, but I’m just ‘Dad’.”
He says the way his children have accepted it makes him feel guilty about the way he viewed his own father when he turned up unannounced to his football games.
“I didn’t like to see him hunched up and looking shaky on the side of the pitch and I’m embarrassed by that reaction now.
“My kids don’t have a choice: I turn up for everything.”
He’s also conscious of the impact Parkinson’s can have on mental health and always plays music in the house, often Bruce Springsteen, to keep his spirits up.
There is a scientific reason behind that too. Parkinson’s can trigger depression due to a drop in levels of the chemical messenger linked to pleasure: dopamine.
Although Dave takes medication which simulates dopamine production for the brain, he estimates he is down to his last 10%.
“You’ve got to be careful because the dopamine rush that you get from the meds can cause addictions,” he explains. “I’ve got a slight addiction to guitars. If I’m not careful, I’d end up buying loads of guitars on eBay. I’ve got seven already, which is too many!”
Nine years on from his diagnosis, Dave continues to work in broadcasting, although he now picks and chooses what he takes on so he can focus on his health.
About 145,000 people have Parkinson’s in the UK, with that number predicted to grow as life expectancy increases.
Several high profile people have recently revealed they live with the progressive condition, for which there is currently no cure.
Ozzy Osbourne announced in January he had a “mild form” of Parkinson’s, comedian Billy Connolly made a documentary about it, and the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones has been charting his progress after a neurologist noticed his symptoms during a live broadcast and contacted the BBC.
Dave spends a lot of his time exercising, to keep his body and mind working. The former Capital Gold reporter has also undertaken several bigger physical challenges from walking the Dales Way to coast-to-coast, generating thousands of pounds for charity but says he “needs one big challenge to finish it off”.
That’s come in the form of an 18-day trek to Mount Everest base camp for Parkinson’s UK, which he will undertake in November. “I’ve always wanted to see Everest, and I thought ‘while I still can, I’ll do it’,” he explains.
Base camp is just short of 18,000ft (5,500m) where the air is thin so he’s unsure how his body will react to the atmosphere.
“Some people say altitude is good for Parkinson’s, some people say it’s bad. Michael J Fox went to meet the Dalai Lama and said he’d never felt as good.”
The expedition will add to an already wide and varied collection of memories.
One of Dave’s most poignant sporting moments came during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous person to have had Parkinson’s.
“I was in the stadium and they didn’t know who was going to light the torch, and they passed it on through various superstars, and then Ali came out wearing a white tracksuit and his hand really badly shaking, he could hardly move.
“I was quite upset at the time because I thought about my dad back in the day. He lit the flame, it was just an amazing moment. It transcended any sporting occasion I’ve ever been to.”
While Dave’s final big challenge will involve Everest, he says it’s important to recognise that every person’s experience of the condition differs.
“People with Parkinson’s do amazing things. Walk coast-to-coast, or just walk down the shops if you’ve not walked down the shops for a while.
“That’s an amazing thing if you’re really struggling – keep going, keep fighting.”
Dave’s tips for living with Parkinson’s
- Live in the now
- Always have something in the diary that excites you
- Play music in the house so you don’t get in that dark place
- Get up, get out, get dressed – but get dressed before you get out!
- Have the odd sofa day but don’t make a habit of it