Melissa Hahn's photo 'Reflections of Autumn,' above, taken in Connecticut, appears in the Parkinson's Disease Foundation's 2013 calendar. Photo above by Melissa Hahn/from Parkinson's Disease Foundation
August 21, 2013 | 03:41 PMAbout seven years ago, Melissa Hahn of Wading River began to feel her knee twitching. Thinking it was stress-induced, she brushed it off and continued her job teaching orchestra at Longwood Junior High School.
But when the experienced violinist could not do a tremolo — a trembling effect while playing the instrument — she knew something was off. She saw several doctors over the course of three years and suspected she had dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, but it wasn't until she went to a movement disorders specialist in the city that she learned what exactly was wrong.
"Within an hour he told me, 'You definitely have Parkinson's,'" Hahn said.
Melissa Hahn of Wading River photographing her home garden. Photo by Alyssa Melillo
At 32 years old, Hahn was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease, which involves the malfunction and death of neurons in the brain, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. Parkinson's causes a person to experience tremors throughout the body, slowed movement, limb stiffness and impaired balance. And only about 4 percent of people who have Parkinson's are diagnosed before the age of 50, the foundation reports.
Now 36, Hahn has learned to adjust to her disease. She can still play the violin and conduct the middle school orchestra — she is also the school's chair of the music, art and family and consumer sciences — but has explored other hobbies. Hahn took up an interest in photography shortly after her diagnosis and has not looked back. She takes several photography trips every year, has a membership with Nature and Wildlife Photographers of Long Island and a photo she took appears in PDF's 2013 Creativity and Parkinson's Calendar.
The selected photo, titled "Reflections of Autumn," depicts a colorful, seasonal scene on Lake Plymouth in Connecticut that will be featured in the calendar's month of October.
"I really say this whole diagnosis was a blessing because I really love photography," Hahn said. "When I'm out taking pictures, I don't even think of the Parkinson's. It's peaceful."
Photography has taken Hahn to many different places. She often travels to Washington and Oregon and went to Maine this summer to capture pictures of wildlife. This winter she is heading to Iceland to shoot the Northern Lights, and next year she will travel to Alaska to photograph bears.
Although Hahn said her disease has progressed since her diagnosis, she has controlled her symptoms with alternative forms of treatment. She sees a doctor for nutrition response in addition to taking her regular medication. Nutrition response, she said, involves following a healthier diet and taking certain supplements for what her body lacks because of Parkinson's. With nutrition response she has been able to reduce the dosage of her medication and has seen improvements in her motor skill — brushing her teeth, putting on her shoes and even cutting her meat have been easier.
Hahn's mother, Eileen, of Ronkonkoma, commended her daughter for how well she has adjusted to having Parkinson's.
Melissa Hahn in her Wading River garden. Photo by Alyssa Melillo
"She never looked at it as something that was going to conquer her," Eileen Hahn said. "Anything that came her way, she just hit it head-on."
While Parkinson's can lead to declining health for most victims down the road, Melissa Hahn might be one of the luckier ones. While Parkinson's is a progressive disease, James Beck, vice president of scientific affairs for PDF, noted that scientific studies have shown that people with young onset Parkinson's disease, defined as diagnosis before age 50, may experience slower disease progression and have a lower risk of developing dementia. Beck said when early onset Parkinson's occurs, it's usually genetic. In Hahn's case, it is, she said; her father lives with the disease as well.
Hahn has always been familiar with Parkinson's because it is in her family. However, since her diagnosis, she has come to realize that many people are not educated about the condition. She said people often react to her trembling by asking her if she is cold or nervous, and many have suggested she limps. She said she hopes that actor Michael J. Fox's new show that premieres next month will shed more light on the disease, as Fox will incorporate his illness in his portrayal of a newsman.
Before Hahn found out she has Parkinson's, she was always on the go. She said she often felt stressed and didn't take the time to relax. But now that she has to be more vigilant about the way she moves and carries herself, it has given her a new perspective on life.
"This disease has totally made me slow down and made me appreciate being in the moment," she said. "It's made me live differently. You can't be all doom and gloom; life goes too fast. It's an adjustment. You make the best of what you can."
This version corrects a statement by James Beck.