Thursday, May 1, 2014

Croatia and Macedonia - Politics and Parkinson’s

I have seen Michael J Fox testify in front of the US Congress and I have seen national and international organizations promoting initiatives to get governments to recognize and address specific concerns of the those with Parkinson’s.  However, in Croatia and Macedonia I was an up close look at politics.
                                              Zagreb                                                 Skopje

I am once again indebted to my many hosts during my journey for the meetings and events that they have organized around my visits.  Professor Maja Relja in Zagreb and Associate Prof Anita Arsovska in Skopje are two such individuals.In both countries I had the pleasure of meeting with members of their respective Neurology departments.  Particularly insightful was the exchanges that I had with the Neurology residents in each city as it was a change to learn about their training programs and hear more about the services available for their patients with Parkinson’s.
                                                   Dr. Relja                            Dr. Arsovska (on my right)

When I first heard that there was a chance that the President of Croatia, Ivo Josipović, and the Mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandić, might attend the gathering in Zagreb, I was excited not only for personal reasons, but for what it represents for those with Parkinson’s in Croatia.  However, I had not fully comprehended the media spectacle that would be the result of the presence of the country and city leaders.  The number of press and their urgent desire to get sound bites was a testimony to the power of political leader to create awareness, in the this case for Parkinson’s.

The meeting in Zagreb was highlighted by the signing of the Global Parkinson’s Pledge, by the President, Mayor, Prof Relja and myself  The pledge is create at the World Parkinson Congress in 2010.  I invite everyone to go to the following link to read and sign the pledge yourselves:  Global Parkinson's Pledge

Despite the presence of the political leaders and the media, the most memorable figure of the day for me was Prof Relja.  The passion that she displayed for this cause was heartwarming.  It is not surprising with her determination and charisma that she could mobilize a city and a nation to support Parkinson’s issues.  

When I arrive in Macedonia, I noticed the billboards with candidates for office on the drive into Skopje, but I didn’t truly understand the magnitude of the event.  I made my way to Mother Theresa Clinic and was met by Anita Arsovska and other members of the Neurology Department.  One of the first topics mentioned was the general election scheduled for 2 days from then.  Whenever the topic came up, the people in Macedonia were quick to let me know how passionate the country was about elections.  In fact, the Neurology staff let me know that they had invited press to cover our meeting, but at that time the media was only interested in events related to the elections.

In every county there seems to be specific issues that act as barriers to progressing Parkinson’s awareness.  One particular concern that heard in Skopje was a lack of a culture of healthy living habits and participation in support groups to address certain disease states.  They stated that the people of Macedonia in general were not used to the concept of healthy diet and exercise for health and therefore, when they attempted to counsel patients - the advice was not often followed.  They also let me know that starting a Parkinson’s support group was hindered by this lack of historical construct – it just was not common in Macedonia for people to meet to talk about health problems.  Interestingly, the city center of Skopje is undergoing a transformation in which widespread construction is attempting to create a majestic center with appearance of historical buildings and statues, of course focused around Alexander the Great.  Maybe this could be a metaphor for a change in the perception of the Macedonia people regarding their health.

As was emphasized to me, one area that the people of Macedonia do have a strong history is involvement in the electoral process.  As I walked across the city to find my hotel, I saw many people gathered with flags and banners and as I got closer I could hear the sounds of a very large political rally.  I knew the general direction of the hotel, but had to ask directions a couple times to keep me going in the right direction – which happened to be in the direction of the rally.  At my second to last stop the waitress at the café said to go straight to the parking lot and turn right and I would see the hotel.  I was now a block from the rally and continued to walk around in circles for 10 -15 minutes, without finding the parking lot, before stopping again.  The waitress in this café didn’t speak English, so she asked the one patron.  He then asked me, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” - to which I could fortunately reply, “ein bisshen.”  Through my broken German and his phone call to the hotel, we figure out that the hotel was just 50 meters from the café.  We stepped outside the café and looked toward the rally and there was the Hotel 8 sign, directly behind the stage in which tens of thousands who had filled the parking lot for which I had been searching.

Upon checking in, I asked the receptionist if there was any place in the hotel that looked out over the rally.  She replied “of course” and then took me and the other lady in the lobby up to the second floor and open the door to a room in which 6 men were sitting, smoking cigarettes and intently following the proceedings. They invited us to join them, but we opted for a side door to an open balcony.  Once outside I asked the lady if she knew anything about the party that was organizing this rally.  She replied, “Well, I will tell you what I do know”.  I turns out that she teaches anthropology at a major US university and studies minority groups in Macedonia.  The rally was for one of the major parties supported by ethnic Albanians and I was fortunate to get a free lecture on the topic.

As I was quite tired and getting hungry, I excused myself and went back to the receptionist for a recommendation for a place to eat. She said either of the two restaurants on either side of the hotel were good. I chose the one on the left, only to be told by the waiter that the half-full restaurant didn’t have tables available.  I thought maybe my running attire wasn’t suitable, but then turned to see the area between the back of the stage and the door to the restaurant was now a tunnel of humanity.  And headed directly at me were the party leaders.  I quickly joined the receiving line to avoid being run over, and when the party leader (who the anthropology professor had informed me had led the fight of the ethnic Albanians for political rights over a decade ago) got me, I did what everyone else in the front row did (and what the other tens of thousands wanted to do) – I shook his hand as he walked by.

Having shook hands with a President and a couple other candidates, the day seemed complete.  What a great symbol for the power of political will to address the needs of those with Parkinson’s in all nations around the world.


  1., as if running 4 miles in 44 countries in 4 weeks and 4 days wasn't enough, you have time to join political rallies!

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