4 men muted by Parkinson’s disease find their voices — and laughter — in Los Alamitos speech therapy class
As they sang in unison an extended “aaah,” from low to high and then low again, the small group sounded like a barbershop quartet at practice.
“Wow, well done!” proclaimed their coach, Lynn Gallandt. “Did it feel good?”
“I’m rubbing down the goosebumps,” deadpanned class clown Erick Samuelson.
However, the men were not warming up their vocal chords just for the fun of it – although they indeed were having fun. The foursome shares an all too common commonality – Parkinson’s disease, which robs its victims of oratory and motor skills.
Every Wednesday for the past six months, they have gathered in a conference room at Los Alamitos Medical Center to bolster their speech. While they’re at it, the new friends bond over wisecracks and life’s frustrations.
Gallandt, a speech language pathologist, leads the team in a prescribed therapy group called The Loud Crowd. Designed by Texas-based Parkinson Voice Project, the program provides step-by-step manuals and instruction. The Loud Crowd courses are held at hospitals and clinics around the country, including seven locations in Orange County.
About 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease annually in the U.S., according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
On a recent afternoon, Gallandt guided students through a few pages of their workbooks – comprised of phrases and word games meant to stimulate clearer annunciation. One page featured sentences related to the month of April. “You pranked me!” the men, almost shouting, read together. “Turn on the garden hose. File your taxes.”
Again and again, Gallandt prompted them to speak even louder: “Throw it over my shoulder! Project your voice across the football field!”
And occasionally, the men – all accomplished in their fields, all over the age of 70 – rejoined with ostensibly mock annoyance.
“Now you’ve got me where I’m self-conscious,” chided Signal Hill resident Sam Sebabi.
“That’s what we want – for you to speak with intention,” Gallandt responded.
Because Parkinson’s also can affect cognitive abilities, some of the Loud Crowd drills require conjuring words from memory: Name some insects, name baseball teams, name things that use batteries. For laughs, Samuelson tended toward the unexpected: boll weevil, Toledo Mud Hens, transistor radios.
Then came a category not conducive to chuckles – the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
“Tremors,” said Sebabi, 71, a retired financial executive.
“Stuttering,” offered David Sloan, 80, a former fire chief and Seal Beach mayor.
“Tiny handwriting and balance issues,” weighed in Samuelson, 77, a one-time management consultant who lives in Long Beach.
“Mumbling,” said retired aerospace engineer Mark Curley, 81, of Long Beach.
Lightening up the mood, Gallandt closed the workshop on a humorous note. Each attendee opened plastic Easter eggs to find a corny joke on a slip of paper. “What is the resemblance between a green apple and a red apple?” Sloan narrated. “Both are red, except for the green one.”
“Your question sounded strong, but your answer was a little soft,” Gallandt critiqued.
“I didn’t write the punchline,” Sloan retorted, to guffaws.
Staying on top of articulation is critical for reasons that go beyond confidence and communication, Gallandt said. The leading cause of death among Parkinson’s patients is aspiration pneumonia due to swallowing disorders.
“The abilities to swallow and to speak are related to the same muscles,” Gallandt said. “Voice therapy also addresses swallowing issues.”
But speaking with emphasis does not come naturally for Parkinson’s patients. The disease interferes with the brain’s neurotransmitters, which relay messages that control body movements previously automatic.That’s why, Gallandt said, the Loud Crowd method focuses on intentional speech.
“When I encourage them to speak louder, I’m not trying to nitpick,” Gallandt said. “I’m training them to think about speech.”
Parkinson’s diagnoses are based on an array of symptoms. Sebabi’s first clue came 10 years ago when his fingers wouldn’t cooperate on a keyboard. Eventually, the disease muted his voice.
“I felt isolated until I found this group,” he said. “My voice has changed tremendously.”
In 2004, Sebabi and his wife, Ruth, who accompanies him to the meetings, founded an orphanage in their native country of Uganda. Two weeks ago, he gave his first speech in a decade about their charity. “That was huge,” Sebabi said.
Curley started noticing balance problems and hand tremors seven years ago. Not only do his kids tell him the therapy has rejuvenated his voice, he said, “Coming here improves my mood.”
For Sloan, the first indication something was amiss emerged during piano lessons eight years ago. “I would drool,” he said. “I thought, hey, this isn’t right.” After his diagnosis, Sloan stayed on the Seal Beach City Council for another few years.
“I can’t wait to come here every week,” Sloan said. “And now that I can talk louder, my wife doesn’t ask me to repeat myself all the time.”
After visiting “specialist after specialist” to figure out the cause of his tremor, Samuelson received his diagnosis in 2014.
“Parkinson’s shrinks you and makes you withdraw,” he said. “One way to fight back is with a strong voice.”
To find a Loud Crowd program, go to parkinsonvoiceproject.org.