Knocking Out Parkinson's

VIDEO: Knocking Out Parkinson's
Cooper wrapping Spignardo's hands before boxing (Source: Live 5)
Cooper wrapping Spignardo's hands before boxing (Source: Live 5)
Spignardo boxing (Source: Live 5)
Spignardo boxing (Source: Live 5)
Spignardo working through a combo with Cooper (Source: Live 5)
Spignardo working through a combo with Cooper (Source: Live 5)

WEST ASHLEY, SC (WCSC) - Something special is happening at a West Ashley gym that could change the lives of thousands in the Lowcountry.

Cody Cooper, the owner and trainer at Grit Box Fitness, is working with Parkinson's Disease patients.

His high intensity fitness studio is filled with men and women during the evening who take part in kickboxing and Grit Fit Bootcamp classes.

During the day though, it's a different sight.

"We're just gonna stand up and sit back down," Cooper said to his patient.

Ernest Spignardo is Cooper's guinea pig, if you will.

Spignardo is a stage one Parkinson's disease patient at MUSC, and the first patient Cooper has worked with who has the disorder.

"[He] had problems with walking, shuffling, balance… slowing down generally," said Spignardo's doctor, Vanessa Hinson, MD, a Professor of Neurology at MUSC. "Just didn't feel like himself."

"He would get exhausted and stumble," added Diane Spignardo, Ernest's wife. "A few times he actually tripped and fell."

"I said to my wife, this is not just growing old," said Spigardo. "There's something more to this than just growing old."

Spignardo was diagnosed with the disease more than six months ago.

"We began to explore possible, not necessarily treatments, but interventions," he said.

That's where Cooper came in.

Both Cooper and the Spignardos had seen the "CBS This Morning" story by Leslie Stahl on television about the Rock Steady Boxing Program based out of Indianapolis, Indiana.

"I had been aware of the program, and I was getting frustrated because so far we have not been able to offer this anywhere in South Carolina," Dr. Hinson said.

Cooper 'put on the gloves'.

"Growing up my family, we've worked with people with disabilities my entire life," Cooper said. "We run a camp back in New York for children with disabilities, and it's always been something I was raised to do."

Spignardo started training with Cooper the first week in December of 2015.

"Stay back on the heels," Cooper told Spignardo as they go through a warm-up. "Yup, sit straight down."

All of his sessions start off with some exercises that can be used daily.

From sitting in a chair, stepping over obstacles, and using hand and eye coordination, Spignardo works through it.

Then the gloves come on.

"Boxing I believe, is somewhat different from other forms of exercises, because it packs all the right elements into one exercise session," Dr. Hinson said.

"A combination of a jab, cross, hook body, they have to think about that before they do it," Cooper added. "Whereas, if they're just doing a bicep curl, for example, that muscle memory kicks in and you don't have to think about it. You just go through the motions."

"You have the aerobic high intensity component, you get coached, so you get pushed beyond your personal limits, you have balance components, strength components, endurance," Dr. Hinson said.

"I keep challenging you because when you're tired then it's going to be harder to really think about that balance," you can hear Cooper tell Spignardo during one of his first sessions.

Fast forward eight weeks to January 27, 2016.

"Good, nice Ernie," Cooper says to Spignardo as they toss a medicine ball back and forth. "Take your time."

"His strength and his confidence with it is so much better than it was," Cooper said. "His ability to sit down, stand up without needing to adjust and shift and use his arms to push up. All those little things that a lot of us take for granted."

"When I saw him exercise last weekend I barely recognized him," Dr. Hinson said.

Dr. Hinson and several other doctors from MUSC visited Grit Box Fitness January 23 to learn more about the program Cooper created.

They were introduced to the Rock Steady Boxing program, and then shown Spignardo's progress over his eight weeks.

Those doctors then put the gloves on for themselves.

"I'm still hurting. I can tell you that," Dr. Hinson said. "I could see it in people's eyes who were doing it with me, who suffer from PD, that this is what they want to do, and they will get better with it."

"To be completely honest, it's been beyond anything I could have imagined," Cooper said.

"Now he comes home from exercising with Cody and he's a different person," Diane Spignardo said. "He's found something that he's lost."

"I just feel like he's dad again," said Scott Spignardo, one of Ernest's sons. "I feel like he's back to being him. This was a big blow to him battling cancer."

That's right, Spignardo battled cancer... twice, and is now in remission.

"PD, like cancer, like many diseases, it's not just the patient that's affected," Spignardo said. "It's the whole family. It's really important to do the best you can, and be assertive as you can as the patient to overcome as much of the disease as you can do."

Right now this form of treatment isn't covered by many insurances.

"I will certainly sign onto this petition for trying to get programs, just like this, covered by all carriers," Dr. Hinson said. "The cost, thank goodness, is modest right now."

"There's a big lack in that preventative medicine out there that's covered by insurances," Cooper added. "I would love to see some insurance companies get behind something like this and take it into consideration in terms of getting coverage for different policies."

"His personality is that he wants to fight back," said Dr. Hinson.

Now Cooper will be helping others fight back as well.

From February 17-19 he'll be in Indianapolis getting certified as a Rock Steady Boxing trainer.

Grit Box Fitness will becomes the only affiliate in South Carolina, at that time.

On February 20 an intro "Knocking Out Parkinson's" class will start.

"It will have a huge impact on the PD community," said Dr. Hinson.

"[I want] to help Cody in any way I can to bring this to other people," Spignardo said. "That's really my main goal, so that the Lowcountry has another opportunity to help Parkinson's patients."

"When we put the gloves on, those aren't magic gloves we're putting on," Cooper said. "We're not putting something on that's going to fix it by just doing that. You really have to come, you have to fight, you have to work for it."

More than a dozen Parkinson's disease patients have signed up for the individual sessions with Cooper.

At least two dozen have already signed up for the group classes.

There are about 1.5 million people living with Parkinson's Disease in America. In the Carolinas, there are 43,000 that deal with the disorder everyday; 3,000 are treated at MUSC.

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