Parkinson's Sufferer's Mysterious Gift

ByABC News

June 30, 2005 -- -- Ten years ago, 58-year-old Greg Rice was the picture of success. The father of three was on the fast-track to the top, with little time for anything but work.

"Worked 80 hours a week sometimes," he told "Primetime Live" co-anchor Chris Cuomo.

Just when Rice thought he had his life under control, it took a terrible turn. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a debilitating neurological disorder.

Buffeted by the disease and the medications used to treat it, Rice's movements -- and even his speech -- became frighteningly uneven. "I was falling over. I couldn't even shave. My writing became terrible," he said.

Rice tried his best to hide his condition. Two years ago, he retired in order to spend more time with his young family. He lost almost everything to the disease. But in return, he got something he never could have imagined.

One day, while putting together a slideshow of family photos on his home computer, he realized it was lacking something -- a musical accompaniment.

So he sat down at a piano and wrote one, despite the fact that he had no formal musical training other than a few childhood piano lessons.

"Something just took over my hands and just played," he said. "I got at the piano and I started playing chords and scales and this tune came to me … Then about a month later I wrote another piece, and then I wrote another piece. And it just kept coming."

The compositions Rice produced were no simple melodies. He wrote chorales, waltzes, even a symphony.

Still, it was not an easy process. It took Rice hours at the piano to get his hands to play what he heard in his head, and then to work a keyboard and mouse to put those ideas into a computer.

"I can't write by hand anymore and I can't talk very well," Rice said at the time. "So it's the way I communicate, the way I express myself.

Rice's efforts drew the attention of Max Hobart, conductor of the Boston Civic Symphony Orchestra.

"The seriousness of his music is very contagious," Hobart said.

Hobart became a mentor to Rice and eventually gave him a chance to have an orchestra play his music. It's a chance some musicians go a lifetime without.

"He knows what he wants. He didn't quite know how to do it. When he first came to me, I could see that he was talented, but untrained," Hobart said.

On June 18, 2004, Rice's compositions were performed as part of the "Concert to End Parkinson's." It raised more than $100,000 for Parkinson's research.

"It was better than I thought it was going to be," Rice said. "Any composer, amateur like me or otherwise, it's a thrill when they hear their music play."

In spite of the amazing musical gift the Parkinson's seems to have given Rice, he was aware that it had also taken away a lot more.

"I coach baseball. And I'll be hitting infield practice and I'll miss every third ball. I try to teach them how to run the bases, I'll fall down," he said.

He said his children had trouble coping with the disease. "It embarrasses them I guess," he said. He and his wife also separated.

Doctors told Rice his Parkinson's was getting worse, and soon medicine alone would not be able to help him. They said if he didn't have surgery, he could wind up in a wheelchair.

But if the Parkinson's was truly the source of his musical gift, doctors told Rice that surgery to reverse it could take that gift away as well.

Nevertheless, Rice decided to go forward with the surgery. In March, he underwent a radical procedure called deep brain stimulation.

The procedure involved implanting electrodes into his brain to mimic the function of dopamine, the chemical messenger that controls movement throughout the body. Parkinson's disrupts the brain's production of dopamine.

Three months after the surgery, Rice's condition is starting to improve. "I don't have to depend upon people to get me things or help me with things now," he told Cuomo. "I can do it myself."

Though his speech is still rushed and he's still unsteady on his feet, he's proud that he can now walk down a slope and not fall down like he used to.

His son's Little League games, once a source of embarrassment, are now a joy. And he's even building a treehouse for his children.

But the question remains: what happened to the music? Neurologist Alice Flaherty, who has treated Rice, says Rice's drive to create was "probably more from the medicines than from the disease, although there's an interaction."

But as Rice scales back on his drugs since the operation, the gift is as present as ever. "It's an absolute part of my life," he told Cuomo. "It's part of my fabric and it's the way I express myself."

Rice adopts a spiritual explanation to how he got this gift -- that God gave him the music to deal with the difficulties of his life. "I have subscribed to that 100 percent," he said. "One door closes and another door opens."

After all he's been through, Rice is now a man at peace. "I think my difficulty in life has been when I've been trying too hard. And I'm not going to try so hard now," he said. "I'm going to just try to relax and let God take over."

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