Exhausted, Mark Sharp finally crossed the finish line of the grueling triathlon. Though he came in last for taking almost two hours to complete the race, he was thrilled.
Why? Mark Sharp has Parkinson’s disease, and for him, just finishing the event was a victory. “My goal was to finish,” he said. “When it was all over I felt great, because with God’s help I was able to meet a very intense challenge.”
Sharp, of Winona Lake, Indiana, was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 at the age of 31. “I prayed that the Lord would take care of it,” he says.
His faith remained strong despite his uncertain future. He’d been a believer since the age of eight, and Sharp’s faith had sustained him through other difficulties in his life, such as the death of his grandparents and his oldest brother.
Researching Parkinson’s, Sharp found that it is a brain disorder which is debilitating, not life threatening, and occurs when nerve cells that produce dopamine (a chemical that controls muscle coordination) die or cannot function properly. This causes symptoms such as shaking, slow movement, stiffness, instability, and muffled speech.
“It’s hard sometimes,” says Kelly Sharp, his wife, when asked how the family has dealt with his disease, “but we’re thankful he’s doing as well as he is.”
The family supports Sharp by treating him as they would anyone else. “It ‘s the greatest compliment they could give me,” says Sharp.
Over the next nine years after the diagnosis, Sharp’s symptoms worsened, and the effect of powerful medicines lessened. As a result, Sharp intermittently lost control of his body and was unable to move. This complicated his daily life and meant he could no longer participate in sports.
“Eventually,” says Sharp “I was forced to give up softball, quit playing tennis and basketball, and eliminate all the things I like to do to get exercise.”
Brain Surgery a Possibility
In 2000, when Sharp found out about the possibility of brain surgery to improve his condition, he had mixed feelings. “I was excited, and not excited,” he says.
Although surgery would greatly improve his quality of life, the procedure involved great suffering. Sharp would be required to cease all medication before and during surgery. In the end, however, his advanced condition prompted him to have the surgery offered by one of the largest and most respected hospitals in the country, the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.
Since the procedure to correct Sharp’s disease was new, he faced the possibility of death. Because of his faith, he says, death and life became inconsequential to him. In life, he would remain with his family; in death, he would be with Christ. At peace, Sharp saw the good in either outcome.
The day before his surgery “was a pretty bad day,” says Sharp, but the night was “awful.” He tossed and turned without the medication he had taken regularly for 10 years. “I fought to find a comfortable position,” he said. “When the night was over, morning was welcomed, with a few reservations.”
The surgery lasted a painful seven hours without the aid of anaesthetics. Two small wires, part of the Activa Deep Brain Stimulator, were implanted into the minute hypothalamus area deep in his brain.
As Sharp remained awake and alert, doctors searched for the stimulator’s proper location based on his body’s reaction to the placement of the wires. Sharp’s muscles relaxed, providing immediate relief from his symptoms once they had finished. “For the first time in ten years, I could relax my arms,” he says.
The next day, doctors implanted two pacemakers into his chest that were attached to the two wires in his brain. The wires, which are controlled by the pacemakers, send signals to his brain to relieve his symptoms. The pacemakers can be turned on and off easily with a large magnet. Sharp demonstrated how the pacemakers work on the CBS program, 60 Minutes, on Feb. 24, 2002.
He returns to the hospital every six months to make sure everything is still working properly. Recently, doctors needed to redo the settings on his Pacemaker, where they turned it off for a time and then back on again.
During the operation, it was difficult for Sharp to think of anything but the pain. He said it reminded him of “Christ on the cross.” Sharp values the operation not only for his improved condition, but also for his greater understanding of Christ’s suffering.
Support of Church, Family Vital
The support of his family, friends, and church, Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church, before, during, and after his surgery also played a big part in his recovery. “Everybody was praying and I knew it…that was the difference.” Sharp serves on the board of overseers at WLGBC.
“I am proud of him and his family,” says John Teevan, who has been the Sharps’ pastor at Winona Lake “And I am delighted at God's answers to so many of their prayers not only for his health, but for the impact of his life.”
Just seven months after his surgery, Sharp participated in the triathlon. He says, “I don’t want to miss out on anything.” Since his surgery, he exercises regularly, participates in sports, and plans on competing in a triathlon again this summer.
Sharp works at DePuy, an orthopedics company in Warsaw, Indiana, in the Research and Development department. He says his job is “the way the Lord is taking care of me” since the company has been very understanding about Sharp’s disease. Thanks to DePuy’s flexibility, he has not missed a day of work except for the two weeks he took off for his surgery.
Sharp uses his disease as a tool to share his faith. He has spoken at numerous prayer breakfasts, and at the Cleveland Clinic where his surgery was performed. As a sports fan, Sharp has also spoken at the Upwards Basketball program in Warsaw. He invited listeners to talk with him about salvation and handed out his autobiographical book, Dare to Believe.
The book, published in 2002, discusses faith and Sharp’s struggle with Parkinson’s. Copies are available through online vendors such as www.amazon.com, and www.half.com, or by calling 1-866-909-2665.
Sharp says God has taught him about the temporary nature of the world and that he has had to learn to “let go of my life.” Sharp recognizes the simplicity of choice; “It’s a choice between what He wants and what I want. He’s always right.”
Now the family eagerly anticipates what God has in store for them as they press on. “We’re trusting God with the future,” says Kelly Sharp.
Sharp’s recent physical victory over Parkinson’s was a result of the spiritual victory he won at the start when he chose to have faith in God. Sharp gives this advice: “You have to have high expectations for your life. You should never think you can’t do something, because with God you can do anything.”