‘It felt very surreal:’ Central Florida man diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 35

Todd Stewart said he felt stiffening at first

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. – At the age of 35, Todd Stewart was training for a half marathon when he started down a road that would lead to a long-held secret.

“I didn’t want it to be held against me in any way, so yeah I did try and keep it a secret as long as I could,” Stewart said.

He remembered back 10 years ago to the first signs something felt different. Stewart was a runner and had been training for a half marathon.

“I was kind of like, I don’t want to say freezing, but it was like things were kind of stiffening up,” Stewart said.

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A few months later he noticed a small tremor in his left hand. Initially, Stewart said, it just seemed like he had had too much caffeine or soda, but he decided to ask an orthopedic specialist to check out the tremor. With no results, Stewart decided to see a neurologist, and within minutes he had a diagnosis.

“It was the first time I met the doctor, and within two or three minutes, they were like, ‘So how long have you had Parkinson’s?’ I was like is this real? It felt very surreal,” Stewart said.

The neurologist told Stewart a visual analysis of his symptoms was enough to make a diagnosis, although they did extra follow-up testing to confirm Parkinson’s Disease. Stewart said before his diagnosis he knew very little about early onset Parkinson’s disease. Some of his symptoms were failed dexterity drills and failure to swing his arms as easily when he walked.

It took more than five years for Stewart to share his diagnosis with most people. Stewart realized after learning about the disease, he needed a movement disorder specialist and couldn’t find one close to home.

“I mean the only thing I knew at that time was Michael J. Fox had it,” Stewart said.

“I ended up taking my care to Gainesville, they’ve got a great neurology center up there, but now we have four or five movement disorder specialists in Central Florida, AdventHealth’s opening a big neuroscience center.”

According to representatives with AdventHealth, the largest independent spine and brain health group in Florida will expand treatments in 2022 for spinal disease, stroke, brain tumors, Parkinson’s Disease, cerebral aneurysm and more.

Craig Brubaker, vice president of AdventHealth’s Neuroscience Institute, said the new Innovation Tower is set to open mid to late 2022.

“General neurologists have always been in Central Florida and they can treat 95% of all specialty issues, but the 5% that really need that care, and there’s a lot believe it or not, they were getting in cars and driving an hour and 45 minutes,” Brubaker said.

The disease affects about 20,000 people in Orange, Seminole, Lake and Osceola counties, according to the Parkinson Association of Central Florida. Young-onset Parkinson’s disease, like in Stewart’s case, affects 10-20% of people who are diagnosed with the disease.

Now as the president of PACF, Stewart has planned the 2022 Walk for Parkinson, after support groups were nearly disbanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stewart said he is worried canceled events left people isolated and searching for resources.

“This is our 8th annual walk, but I think it’s our most important walk just because it’s been three years since we gathered as a Parkinson’s community,” Stewart said.

The Walk for Parkinson event will be held Saturday, April 2, starting at 8 a.m. To learn more, click here.