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“Everything I used to do, I will do until I cannot anymore”: Parkinson’s didn’t stop him from hiking

Johnson See was interviewed by Gracia Lee from Salt&Light. This article was originally published by Salt&Light (www.saltandlight.sg) and re-posted here with permission. All photos courtesy of Johnson See.


"Though there are times when you cannot understand God’s way, He is always good to us,” said Johnson See on what has kept him strong despite his Parkinson's disease.


Imagine walking 20km every day for two weeks along winding roads and hilly terrain, in a 270km-long journey from France to Spain.


Tackling a portion of the over 770km Camino Trail, an ancient pilgrim path that runs from the French town of Saint Jean Pied de Port to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, would not be an easy feat for anyone, let alone an almost 70-year-old with Parkinson’s disease.


Yet this was the journey that Johnson See, 69, conquered in September 2022 despite having the odds stacked against him.


One foot in front of the other

By all accounts, Johnson almost did not make the hike.


Though he is an avid hiker, his movements had slowed down a fair bit since he was diagnosed in 2015 with early-stage Parkinson’s disease, which had weakened the right side of his body.


A degenerative disease that affects the nervous system, Parkinson’s currently has no cure, though medication and exercise have shown to be effective in slowing down its inevitable progression.


Still, he readily agreed when his hiking buddies invited him to join them for the Camino Frances.


“I knew it would be difficult but I love to explore new things, and this was something I’d never done before,” he said.


But less than a year before the trail was slated to begin, another spanner was thrown into the works. He had to undergo a kneecap replacement surgery.


Though he believed he would recover in time, the pain in his leg intensified along with his training. “My team was very concerned about me because I was super slow and I had to take painkillers as I trained,” he recalled.


Two months before he was due to fly to France, no one – including himself – believed that he would be able to complete the hike.


“But I still wanted to try. I thought to myself: What’s the worst that can happen? If I can’t do it, I’ll just take a taxi or a bus and meet them at the next point,” he said.


The journey was as gruelling as he had imagined. Blisters, swollen feet and chipped toe nails were par for the course, along with having to deal with a hurting knee, stiffness in his body and an itchy hiker’s rash.


Despite moving more slowly than others, Johnson pressed on at his own pace as he trekked from France to Spain.


Despite all these, he did not quit. Breaking out in a laugh, he explained: “I could still bear it. I didn’t want to give up so easily. I wanted to go on until I really couldn’t anymore.”


Setting out earlier than the others each day with a prayer for strength, and not minding if he pulled up last at the end of each day’s trek, Johnson pressed on by simply putting one foot in front of the other – not unlike how he had dealt with his debilitating Parkinson’s disease over the last eight years.


The kampung boy

Born a self-declared “adventurous kampung boy”, Johnson had always loved nature and the outdoors.


In his life, the retired marketing director has dived to the depths of the ocean and hiked up peaks from Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia to Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.


Just after he hit 60 years old, a church friend who often accompanied him on his climbing expeditions noticed that his movements were getting stiffer and slower.


She urged him to get it checked out at the National Neuroscience Institute, where he eventually received the unexpected diagnosis.


“It came as quite a shock to me because I’ve always been very active. I called my wife and we both cried over the phone. My main fear was that I would be a burden to my family and loved ones,” said Johnson, who has three children and two grandchildren.


When he was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Johnson worried that he would become a burden to his wife and three children. But engaging in regular intensive exercise has staved off the progression of his disease for eight years.


As people with Parkinson’s disease gradually lose more and more control of their movements and speech, he also worried about whether he would be able to keep up the outdoor activities that he enjoys.


A Christian since he was a secondary school student, he sank into depression and cried out to God asking why He would allow this ailment to befall him.


While there was no direct response from God, Johnson found an inexplicable comfort between the pages of God’s living Word – in particular, the book of Job.


Pulled out of the pit

Though he was a man who was severely afflicted, Job had remained faithful to God, declaring: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).”


This verse helped Johnson to acknowledge that God was the One who had given him so many good things, including his very salvation, over the course of his life.


“So I must also accept when God takes them away,” he said solemnly.


“Looking back, I could see God’s fingerprints upon my life. He always takes care of me and He’s always good to me. Though there are times when you cannot understand God’s way, He is always good,” said Johnson.


It was this faith, along with the support and love of his family and friends, that pulled him out of the pit of despair and enabled him to say, as Job did: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15).”


He determined not to give up hope and persisted in his active lifestyle, even though it meant taking things at a slower pace.


“I used to lead the hikers by the front. Now I lead from the back! Sometimes people have to pull me upslope but I have to learn to accept this,” said Johnson, adding that engaging in intensive exercise has helped to slow down the progression of his disease.


Trekking the Camino Frances was an opportunity for Johnson to reflect on the goodness of God in creation and in his own life.


Shortly after his diagnosis, he took on the challenge of climbing more than 5,000m up to Mount Everest’s base camp. These days, he goes on hikes around Singapore at least once a week with a fellowship group he founded, SALT Fellowship (which stands for Senior Adult Life Transformation).


“Everything I used to do, I will do until I cannot anymore. People say I’m crazy,” he added with a hearty laugh.


Useful in every season

Though Johnson may seem victorious in his battle against Parkinson’s, he shares that struggles still abound.


It has been difficult to keep up his active lifestyle due to the effort and time it requires. “I always pray to God to give me discipline,” he told Salt&Light.


The left side of his body has also gotten weaker, signalling that his disease has deteriorated. Micro-movements like taking money out of his wallet and buttoning his shirt have becoming more challenging.


He is starting to lose control of his facial muscles, causing him to have “poorer table manners” and even drool unconsciously.


“Because of all these things, it has come to my mind many times to just stay at home, don’t go out, don’t see people, withdraw from society. That’s a battle I also have to fight. I have to pray and ask God to give me the strength not to look to myself but to look up to Him and look out for other people to help instead,” he confessed.


What keeps him going is the knowledge that God has a purpose for this season of his life, despite his failing body. For one, he has found meaning in sharing his experience with Parkinson’s with others like him and encouraging them in their journeys.


“Though my body is moving towards the second stage of Parkinson’s, I believe that I can still remain useful to God,” said Johnson, adding that he is happy to give talks in churches.


Hard-won achievement

It was exactly this – God’s purpose for him – that Johnson pondered as he trekked each day of his Camino journey against the backdrop of God’s marvellous creation of nature.


“As I was watching a glorious sunrise, I was also reflecting the many ups and downs of my life. Though there are still many matters and issues I still don’t understand, I know that God never changes and is always good,” he said.


It was only by God’s strength that Johnson managed to complete the 270km Camino feat, he said.


When Johnson took the final step across the finish line, he was overwhelmed with emotion and joy.


“The first thing I did was to thank God that all things are possible with Him. It was a miracle that I managed to complete it. People asked me how I did it. I also don’t know. It was only by God’s strength,” he said.


Confessing that he had secretly teared up a little bit over his hard-won achievement, he added: “I then asked God to help me remember this day that He has walked me through, and to especially remember it in all the difficult days to come.”

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