I went to a local Parkinson’s conference recently and got a surprise. I happened to be seated by a man named Michael Reed, and heard him talk enthusiastically about flying with another man at the table. Turned out they were both commercial airline pilots. That wasn’t the surprise — the surprise was that Captain Reed was still flying.
Like me, Reed got his diagnosis of PD four years ago (late 2012), and like me, he was diagnosed in his 50s, early in the progression of the disease. Unlike me, Reed decided to stick with his job — he was, and is, passionate about flying. Again unlike me, he’s had the energy to pursue that passion.
I was intrigued (and assured) to hear the airline industry protocol when a pilot gets a diagnosis of a progressive disease like PD. In Reed’s case, he grounded himself. For four months, Reed remained on the ground while researching Parkinson’s and investigating treatment options. Eventually,he arranged with his employer to work flight operations (on the ground) which he began doing in April 2013. He was feeling good and said “I’m not just going to fade away.”
By late 2013, he had worked with his neurologist to figure out the right drug therapy, which minimized most of his symptoms – mainly, a tremor in his left arm and an issue with his walking gait. So — back in the cockpit? No, caution was the watchword. Reed said, “I gave myself a year to ensure I wouldn’t have any side effects. After a year, I decided to start working toward getting my medical certificate (for pilots) back.”
Through protocols (“special issuances”) issued by the FAA, Reed was able to get back on path toward flying a plane. In early 2015, while Reed continued to work flight operations, he took several tests (including a six-hour written exam on airplane systems!) and many hours of flight simulator sessions. He also did what’s called “check rides” — imagine the driver’s ed instructor evaluating everything you do as you drive. Finally, in April 2015, he was cleared to fly. It was “gratifying and humbling” to return to flight, said Reed.
One more hurdle: A supervisor flew alongside him on his first trip, monitoring every move in a three-day cross-country check ride. The three-day tour took him from Seattle to Portland, San Francisco and Chicago before returning to Seattle. Reed hardly blinked. The flights were relatively smooth, right up until it was time to descend toward O’Hare. Reed encountered turbulence, which caused him to fall back on his pilot instincts, honed through more than a quarter century of flying. The pilots had to re-program the computer in the cockpit.
By the time they successfully landed on the runway in Chicago, Reed was brimming with fulfillment. He turned to his co-pilot. “I get to do this again,” Reed said with a smile. “This is so cool.”
And here’s another surprise: Reed’s successful return to the air is not that uncommon. During his comeback, Reed was in contact with the Airline Pilots Association aeromedical center in Colorado and discovered that, by their conservative estimate, there were at least 200 pilots with Parkinson’s disease flying in the commercial industry. Reed counts himself as fortunate to now be among them. As Reed prepared to fly again, his daughter Grace said: “Dad, now you get to do what you love to do.”
And one more surprise — Captain Reed and the pretty woman in the photo, Kim Reed, are newlyweds — just celebrating their one-year anniversary. When asked why she “signed up” for marriage knowing that Reed has Parkinson’s, she replied, “I’ve known Mike for 10 years — That’s not how I see him”
Parts of this article are based on an article by Scott Johnson in the Spring 2015 newsletter of Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation. Michael Reed serves on the board of the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation.