BALTIMORE Sometimes it’s easy for Vincent Vono to feel down about having to live with Parkinson’s disease.
The disease has snatched his independence and sense of a normal life. The 76-year-old stopped driving last year as his motor skills slowed. He doesn’t cook much because it is too exhausting to clean up afterward. Even a short walk across his tiny apartment is a task some days.
But for all the disease has taken away from Vono, it has fostered and strengthened a love for art that first developed when he was a boy.
Painting is the one thing that still comes easily to Vono. When he sets his easel up in his living room, Vono can paint for hours. As he paints portraits of his grandchildren or of the Madonna and child, his tremors subside and for a moment he forgets he is sick.
“It fills the gap,” he said. “It erases all of the garbage out of my head.”
As in all Parkinson’s patients, Vono’s brain no longer effectively produces the chemical dopamine, which helps control muscle movement. Without dopamine, his brain cannot send messages to his arms, hands, legs or feet.
Sometimes his body seems to have a mind of its own. His hands or feet will move in some direction he doesn’t intend. Then there are the tremors. They change in intensity depending on his mood – growing stronger when he’s anxious, angry or excited.
“It knows my emotions,” he said.
Vono started to detect something was wrong in 2007. He had just moved to Maryland to be close to his son. He was still mourning the death of his wife, who had died of a brain tumor the year before.
The tremors started gradually on the left side of his body. As he drove, his hand would shake. He’d hold his hand very tight and still to make it stop. Then his foot would “start doing a dance,” he said.
When the doctor diagnosed Parkinson’s, Vono was scared, confused and angry.
His functions have deteriorated since the initial diagnosis. While medication to replace his body’s dopamine helps with some symptoms, nothing can ultimately stop the disease from taking over his body.
A couple of years ago, Vono reached a point where he couldn’t care for himself. He wasn’t taking his medicine regularly or eating healthfully. He moved into assisted-living.
Looking to achieve some normality, Vono would sit outside for hours painting landscapes or pieces with science-fiction themes, such as tablecloths floating in the air.
The owner of the assisted-living home, Roger Stanley, immediately noticed his new resident’s talents. He displayed Vono’s work in a common area.
Stanley also saw how painting helped Vono deal with his illness.
“He became completely still when he painted, and he could focus on the painting,” Stanley said. “And the tremors would just stop.”
Dr. Liana Rosenthal, a Johns Hopkins doctor who specializes in neurological disorders, said exercising the brain can help patients with disorders like Parkinson’s cope with the disease.
It’s not exactly known what happens in the brain, but keeping it active helps improve motor skills, said Rosenthal.
Rosenthal said that for Vono, painting has probably become an informal form of physical therapy. Doing something he likes also helps his mood, she said.
“He is also doing an activity that he enjoys and spending time not thinking about his disease and not being sick,” Rosenthal said. “We always encourage patients to find an activity that they enjoy and do it. Staying active is one of the best things people with Parkinson’s can do.”
Vono’s love for art spans years. He went to an industrial-arts high school in Brooklyn and was an illustrator for the Army during the Cold War.
He ultimately pursued a career in advertising, practicing his art as a hobby. He worked his way up in the pharmaceutical advertising world, eventually becoming an art director.
“I wanted a paycheck,” he said.
Throughout the years, he took art classes on the weekends and enjoyed painting as he and his wife raised a family.
If he had it to do over again, Novo said, he might pursue a career in art instead of advertising. He takes art classes twice a week at the local community college. His work recently placed in an arts and crafts show. Vono is thinking of trying to sell his artwork.
Vono’s first love has now become the center of his life. Because of financial reasons, he recently moved from assisted living into his own apartment in Abingdon, Md. But his easel sits in his living room in front of large windows with plenty of sunlight.
“It’s perfect for painting,” he said.