If you saw Mary Anne Ostrenga browsing the aisles at the grocery store or clipping roses in her Naperville garden, you might notice that she moves a bit slowly. You probably wouldn't think much of it, though.
You certainly wouldn't appreciate the extra minutes she spent easing on her jacket before leaving the house, or the frustration she felt while swirling a toothbrush around her mouth. Routine tasks like these have become more difficult since Ostrenga, 59, observed the first symptoms of an illness more than a decade ago.
A lifelong gardener whose pride is a 3-acre property with a serene pond, Ostrenga noticed she could no longer smell her rose garden, and that it was getting increasingly difficult to return to her feet after planting annuals. The diagnosis: Parkinson's disease, a progressive movement and balance disorder that affects more than 5 million people around the world.
When shock and surprise dimmed a bit, Ostrenga's plants came to the rescue.
For years she had combined volunteer work with caring for her family, which includes two grown daughters and husband Jim Ostrenga, a Naperville physician. Now the cause was more personal. A garden walk for Parkinson's disease seemed like the perfect way to raise money and awareness.
Since she began, Ostrenga has raised more than $500,000 through the walk and other fundraisers for Parkinson's-related charities, including the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Like her hero, Michael J. Fox, who is also living with Parkinson's disease, Ostrenga saw a personal challenge as a chance to influence others with her positivity and purpose.
Q: What was your family like /when you were/ growing up?
A: I have two older brothers, and then seven and eight years later, my two sisters came. I lived for years with just boys, and I always knew how to get what I wanted! ... We lived in a three-story building in Chicago. We had seven people in our own family, but my parents were always open to us having our friends over. When we got in the car to go somewhere, there were always other people with us. I don't know how we all fit!
Q: What is the best lesson you learned from your father or mother?
A: The best thing I learned from my mother (who died in April) was a love of the land. And the love of planting, and the peace gardening can bring to you. Just digging out a weed makes me feel good! I thought of moving, but I know I'll never get a piece of property like this again, so I think I'm here for a while.
Q: What is your greatest possession?
A: My backyard or my swimming pool. The swimming pool is the best thing I ever did for myself. I've always loved swimming and sun-tanning, but now it's really good for me to exercise in the water. When you are in the water, you don't feel like you have Parkinson's disease. It's so much easier to move, and you don't have the sore joints.
Q: What are some things people don't realize about living with Parkinson's?
A: A lot of the symptoms you notice, but nobody else does. Nobody knows it's hard for you to roll over in bed or that it's hard to brush your teeth. When you first wake up you are all stiff. People see me and they think I don't have any symptoms, but I'm slower. It takes me longer to chop up onions for a salad.
Your voice gets soft. I took a course for 30 days (to help me learn to talk louder). For a year or two before I was diagnosed, my husband was always saying "talk louder, talk louder." And I was so angry because I thought I was talking loudly.
Putting on a coat or sweater, for me, is a major thing. Somehow, I get my left arm in, but by the time I get to my right arm, my coat is all twisted up in a ball.
Q: What is your greatest attribute?
A: A positive attitude about life. I always try to be on the "up" side and not to give in to depression or anger, which is sometimes hard to do (laughs). I enjoy being with other people, and I try to be a good friend.
Q: Who is your living hero?
A: Michael J. Fox. I've met him at least a dozen times now, and he's always positive, always up. He has a great sense of humor. He's dedicated his life to finding a cure for Parkinson's disease and yet he still finds time to lead a "normal" life. Everyone wants a little piece of him, and he tries to give that to you. He can't really sign autographs anymore because Parkinson's disease makes it hard to write. But if you ask specially, he will try. In my book he wrote, "Mary Anne, some day I will come to smell your roses." So I'm waiting!
Q: How have your meetings with Michael J. Fox changed you?
A: They've inspired me to raise as much money as I can. You never know which dollar will be the one that helps lead us to a better treatment or a cure. And seeing him stand up in front of the crowd with his dyskinesia is inspiring. You see him up there, and he just keeps plugging on. He doesn't mind poking fun at himself either.
Q: What's next for you?
A: A lot of my friends have been asking if I want to give up the fundraising because they're worried it's too hard on me and too much work. This year the garden walk will be at the Cantigny Gardens, so we don't have to worry about the garden maintenance. That's been a huge relief.
The 6th annual Team Fox Garden Walk will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 23 at Cantigny Gardens in Wheaton. Tickets are $25. A dinner reception is planned from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. June 24 at Sullivan's Steakhouse in Naperville. For information, go to www2.michaeljfox.org/goto/maostrenga.