A North-East grandad has been tackling Parkinson’s Disease head-on by running, climbing, and singing. Now, he’s added virtual reality to his armoury in his fight against the brain condition. PETER BARRON explains

HE may be sitting on the settee at home in a North-East village, but Keith Wilson’s heart is racing as he takes off in the Space Shuttle.

Yesterday, he was in The Antarctic, searching for emperor penguins, then climbing an ice cap and looking down on a minke whale.

The day before, he was underwater, exploring a shipwreck on the seabed, and swimming with dolphins, turtles and manatees.

That was after he'd had a walk through the Grand Canyon, and squeezed in a couple of roller-coaster rides while dodging dinosaurs.

“The more exhilarating the better – I’ve got no doubt that it’s all helping,” says Keith as he removes his headset and returns to the comfortable lounge of the house he shares with wife, Jill, in Middleton One Row, near Darlington.

Keith, 72, is a remarkable man whose story has been told in instalments in this column over the past couple of years. That has led to him being featured on national TV, and in demand to speak to Parkinson’s Disease support groups around the country.

It all started when he was diagnosed with the condition in March 2020, just as the Covid pandemic was taking its grip. He was left depressed by the diagnosis, but he’s picked himself up, and tackled the disease by embarking on an energetic mix of long-distance running, cycling, rock climbing – and singing in a choir. He even sings while he runs because it helps focus his brain.

People with Parkinson’s have low levels of dopamine – a ‘neurotransmitter’ that communicates messages between nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the body.

Keith has seen how being active can generate dopamine and adrenaline, to help him hold back the effects of Parkinson’s.

He continues to be as active as possible, including being a regular at the Darlington parkrun, and an enthusiastic member of the Darlington SING Community Choir, but he’s also now seeing how the wonders of virtual reality can be an important therapy.

The idea of adding VR to his armoury came when he took his 14-year-old godsons, Ben and Miles Hatton, to Florida last October. The boys were bought a VR headset to keep them entertained during the holiday, and Keith was struck by how much of a workout they got from an adrenaline-pumping game called Beat Sabre.

Then, during visits to Universal Studios, Keith did his godfatherly duties by riding 37 rollercoasters in a week, including some that used virtual reality.

“Jill noticed a real change in me after I’d been on the rollercoasters,” recalls Keith. “I was chatty and the most normal she’d seen me in years.”

Keith and Jill were so encouraged that they bought a pair of headsets, and made virtual reality part of their lives: travelling all over the world, taking part in exercise programmes, and playing target-shooting games that help Keith’s co-ordination.

“It’s been brilliant for me," declares Keith. "It’s all about chemicals in the brain and, the more excitement I get, the better it feeds in. I’ve got no doubt that it’s helping control my Parkinson’s.”

Jill is just as positive: “Since Keith’s been using the virtual reality headset, he’s more animated, his speech is better, he’s more focused, and it’s increased his enthusiasm for life,” she says.

Keith spent his career in education, lecturing in history and management at Darlington College, and ending up as Director of Higher Education, before going on to work part-time for Teesside and Sunderland Universities during semi-retirement.

Now, he’s passionate about helping other Parkinson’s sufferers, and he’s determined to spread the word about the health benefits of virtual reality.

He took his headset with him when he visited a friend, Stuart Harris, who’d been left in a wheelchair by a stroke. “He tried it and it completely energised him – his wife went out and bought him one straight away,” says Keith.

And when Bob Galbraith, chair of the Darlington Parkinson’s Disease Support Group, asked for ideas on how to make exercise classes more engaging, Keith immediately suggested VR headsets.

A bid was submitted to Parkinson’s UK to fund VR headsets for group members, with Victoria McFaull, of Vixi Wellbeing Support, at Teesside InternationaL Airport, chosen to deliver the exercise classes.

Unfortunately, the charity was unable to cover the costs due to the number of bids made for other support projects, so Keith has now launched his own GoFundMe page, setting a target of £3,000 to buy six headsets.

Dr Khin Nini, a consultant specialising in Parkinson’s Disease at Darlington Memorial Hospital, describes Keith as a “remarkable patient", encouraging his active lifestyle and use of VR.

And interest is growing steadily. Tomorrow morning, he'll be the opening speaker at a virtual international conference, organised by the Health Coaches Academy, and attended by 90 delegates from around the world. The title of his talk is “Challenging Parkinson’s – exercise, singing, and virtual reality, instead of drugs.”

Next month, he’s been booked to speak to newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients at Sedgefield Hospital. In the world of Parkinson's Disease, this down-to-earth grandad has rapidly become a role model.

“When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, everything went into decline. I thought my life was over, but now I see it as the beginning of lots of new experiences,” says Keith.

First it was running, cycling, and rock climbing. Then came the joy of singing in a choir. And the latest of his new experiences is the magical world of virtual reality.

“It all goes back to that holiday to America with the boys – that was the trigger – and I’m exploring different programmes to see which ones are the most beneficial,” says Keith.

He's over the moon at the progress he's made, but there’s clearly still a long way to go before he masters his brave new world...

At the end of this morning's flight in the Space Shuttle, he was able to take the controls for the landing back on earth.

“It didn’t go well. I crashed it!” he concedes.

But what matters is that Keith Wilson is wearing a happy smile – and pushing Parkinson’s Disease to the back of his mind.

  • To support Keith’s bid to buy virtual reality headsets for the Darlington Parkinson’s Disease Support Group, please CLICK HERE