A campaigning grandad is leading a North-East trial to assess the part Virtual Reality can play in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease – and the results are being welcomed nationally. PETER BARRON reports

THEY may be slow and deliberate, but the words used by Mark Jarema are also moving and profound: “At first, there was only depression, but now I’ve rediscovered optimism.”

Mark is one of eight Parkinson’s Disease sufferers taking part in a pioneering North-East trial to assess the difference virtual reality (VR) can make to those with the cruel neurological condition.

And, as the first phase of the trial comes to an end this week, the signs are positive and exciting.

“I admit I was cynical to begin with, but now I’m a convert – it’s a revelation,” says Mark, who lives in Darlington.

Mark is the first to pay tribute to Keith Wilson, an unassuming grandad who is the driving force being the trial that’s taking place in a small fitness and wellbeing suite on the site of Teesside International Airport.

“I admire Keith greatly – he started me from scratch and now I’m flying,” says Mark. “He doesn’t push it on anyone, but what he’s doing here is groundbreaking. He’s supportive and leads by example. He’s an inspiration to us all.”

Keith, a former college lecturer, was devastated when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in March 2020. But he’s gone on to make national waves with his determination to tackle the disease head-on – by embarking on a programme of long-distance running, cycling, rock climbing, and singing in a choir.

His belief – backed by doctors – is that the activities generate dopamine and adrenaline to help hold back the effects of the illness.

Last year, while on holiday with his teenage godsons, Keith had a try with their virtual reality headset, and discovered a new dimension in his fight against Parkinson’s. By losing himself in a host of VR activities – all from his home in Middleton St George – he felt marked improvements in his condition.

He was so impressed that he decided to help other Parkinson’s patients. He launched a crowdfunding appeal that raised £4,500 to buy ten headsets, and to fund three eight-week programmes of virtual reality classes expertly run by wellbeing coach Victoria McFaull at Vixi Wellbeing Support, on the airport site.

The first programme is completed this week, with participants reporting highly encouraging results.

Mark started gently, wearing the headset to fly a paper aeroplane, then progressed to table tennis, dancing, tai chi, keep fit, and rollercoasters.

The Northern Echo: Mark Jarema tries out a virtual reality headsetMark Jarema tries out a virtual reality headset (Image: Peter Barron)

“The main benefit is the adrenaline rush,” he explains. “It gives you a thrill – you feel excited and emotional again, and that all helps relieve the symptoms.”

Having initially been left depressed by his diagnosis, Mark is now determined to take the fight to Parkinson’s. He’s thinking of buying his own headset and hopes to continue his progress by joining the next programme, which starts on March 4.

“My aim is to challenge Parkinson’s and, ultimately, be part of something that makes a difference to other sufferers,” he declares.

Retired railway worker John Purvis, of Sherburn Village, is another of the guinea pigs on the trial. He was inspired to sign up after hearing Keith give a lecture to a Parkinson’s support group in Durham.

John was diagnosed in April last year and, so far, his VR activities have included fighting with a lightsaber, boxercise, walking around Machu Picchu in the Andes, and visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.

“It’s definitely been worthwhile,” says John, who's been moved to invest in his own headset.

“I find it easier to do everyday things, like getting dressed, using an electric shaver, and brushing my teeth. I do it without thinking now.

“What Keith’s done in pushing this forward is invaluable. If it hadn’t been for his enthusiasm, I might never have discovered it. It’s a great way to exercise, and it’s made me feel more mentally positive – it’s given me back the feelgood factor.”

The trial is being supported and promoted by Tees Valley Sport, part of Sport England, and Danny Reed, the organisation’s Marketing and Communications Officer, is another to pay tribute to Keith.

“After speaking to Keith about his journey with Parkinson’s, we felt a moral obligation to help with his amazing work. He’s pioneering something that’s not really happening anywhere else,” says Danny.

Parkinson’s UK has backed the trial with a grant, and the charity’s Head of Physical Activity, Tim Morton, describes it as a “model project”.

“We could see the work Keith had put into giving it a structure. There was a plan, so we were happy to support it,” says Tim.

“Having someone with Parkinson’s showing the way is really powerful. It’s a horrible condition, but Keith is not only helping himself, he’s helping others, and showing what’s possible.”

Tim explains that Parkinson’s has 40-plus symptoms, and everyone reacts differently, but the value of the trial is having participants with a wide range of experiences from the disease, trying different activities, and doing them together.

“It’s a very complex condition to have interventions with, but virtual reality is something everyone can use, and there’s a real social element to it. It will open lots of doors and lead to other things. Someone might try table tennis on VR and think ‘oh, I’d like to do it for real’ and join a club.

“It’s early days but we definitely see the promise – it has the potential to go much further.”

Tim looks into the room, where the participants are wearing their headsets. They’re moving, dancing, swaying, boxing, running – and removed from reality.

“Look at them,” adds Tim. “I don’t know where they are in the world but they’re enjoying doing amazing things.”

The first 16 weeks of the programme are exclusively for those with Parkinson’s, but the third series of workshops will be opened up to people with other conditions, and there’s interest from other agencies, including Age UK and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

At the end of the sessions, the Parkinson's participants gather at the nearby Oak Tree pub for a coffee and a natter. They’re back to reality but are happy to share their feelings, with a more positive outlook on life.

For Keith, that means the world: “I feel like a proud dad,” he smiles. “It’s exceeded my expectations already because the difference within a few weeks has been incredible.

The Northern Echo: Keith Wilson who has led the campaignKeith Wilson who has led the campaign (Image: Peter Barron)

“These people aren’t relying on the NHS, they want to help themselves, and it’s wonderful seeing them so animated. It gives me a dopamine kick just being amongst them.”

Today happens to be Keith’s 73rd birthday, and the best present he could have hoped for is seeing his dream of helping others turn into reality.

Happy (real life) birthday, Keith.