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Man embarks on Belle Taine swim for Parkinson’s

Eric Young, right, is swimming the length of Lake Belle Taine Saturday in honor of his mother, Barbara Vandergraft, who battled Parkinson’s Disease. (Family photo)

BY Sarah smith

It began with gait problems. Was it clumsiness?

For the next 27 years Barbara Vandergraft fell so many times, she broke almost every bone in her body, some twice.

She was stitched up, bruised, battered.

When her only child was 13, she sat him down on the couch and said she had Parkinson’s Disease, an incurable and degenerative brain disorder that leads to movement problems, tremors, shakes, coordination and walking difficulties. Especially the walking part.

“It just didn’t register,” said Eric Young, now 40. He’d never heard of Parkinson’s.

“She said she would be getting progressively sicker and sicker,” Young said. “I remember the conversation vividly.”

But for those next 27 years, Barbara Vandergraft faced the disease with a mixture of grace, stubborn acceptance and perseverance. The disease robbed her of her short-term memory at first, then she suffered full-blown dementia and paranoia at the end. But Parkinson’s never stole her will to live.

She passed away Dec. 16.

“Her fight and her grit were an inspiration,” Young said.

This Saturday, July 6, Young will swim the length of Lake Belle Taine in her memory and as a mechanism to bring attention and contributions to Parkinson’s. It will be a nearly 6-mile endurance contest.

Young has participated in marathon and triathlon events before, but this one is personal. His mother will be his spiritual guide for the duration of the swim.

Barbara and her husband divorced when Eric was young, so she was essentially a single mother.

Belle Taine is home of a family cabin that Barbara loved. She enjoyed the tranquility of the historic cabin, the first built on the lake’s south shore.

She pushed herself beyond her physical limitations, long enough to see her two granddaughters born.

Eric was profoundly affected by the episodes of diskinesia, the jerky movements most people correlate with actor Michael J. Fox and the boxer Muhammad Ali, who both have Parkinson’s.

Barbara couldn’t feed herself. But she didn’t want to become a prisoner in her Rosemount home. She taught Tai Chi and took walks, knowing full well she might fall.

At one point, she had a surgical procedure that implanted electrode. Deep brain stimulation  ‘provides an electrical impulse to a part of the brain involved in motor function, helping to compensate for the effects of the loss of dopamine.’  the brain chemical thought to be linked to Parkinson’s.

“She lived vicariously through me,” Young said.

She battled depression and after an especially bad fall, she only occasionally said, “This is enough. I don’t want to fight any more.”

She spent her last five months in hospice care. By then she could not make facial expressions and her speech was not discernable.

“She had so many good years,” Young said, focusing on the positive.

Young, who manages private charter flights for Delta Airlines, had to move to Atlanta 3½ years ago after Northwest Airlines was subsumed by Delta. Both he and his wife had been longtime Northwest employees.

His charter flights transport NBA and NHL teams, and he was able to persuade the teams to sweeten the pot. At the event Saturday, which will end at the Nevis Beach, raffle ticket winners will be announced. The lucky winners will get game tickets to professional events.

Young told his mother about his planned swim before she passed away, he said.

“I don’t always enjoy swimming,” he admitted. “But then I think this is nothing. Suck it up and do it. When I’m tired and want to quit, I’ll just think about her.”

He and a friend will swim the south shore of the lake, leaving at noon.

“The plan is to have a kayak with each of us,” he said. But as the event gets more publicized, boats from the region plan on joining.

A celebration is planned tentatively at the Nevis Beach at 4 p.m., depending on how the swimmers do.

“She was such a sweet person,” Young said. “She sacrificed so much for me.”

Young said despite her illness, Barbara was his best cheerleader and fiercest supporter.

He plans to channel that support Saturday.

Donations can be pledged online at Eric’s website at, or directly to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation,

Young has already surpassed his initial goal of $5,000 and has set a new one of $7,500.

“There still is no cure,” Young said sadly.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364