Sara’s story

Air Force veteran battles Parkinson’s as she earns a spot at the 2023 Ironman World Championship in Kona

Sara Whittingham, a doctor with Parkinson’s disease, is training for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. She is doing this to raise awareness for the disease and to show others that it is possible to live a full and active life with Parkinson’s. She is also involved in raising funds to support research on the benefits of exercise for people with Parkinson’s. Sara’s story is an inspiration to others with Parkinson’s, and it shows that the disease does not have to define them.

A few years ago, Sara Whittingham, M.D., was sitting on the couch at her home and noticed that her arm was shaking. So, she did a search on the symptoms. She was aware of the disease — Parkinson’s — that kept appearing in the search results but didn’t know a lot about it. She had experienced other small signs before. Now she was discovering more about neurodegenerative disorders via Google.
A woman riding a racing bike on a desert road.
1,200,000 United States residents will be living with Parkinson’s disease (PD) by 2030. Studies revealed that the disease usually gets worse over time and that there was no cure. Sara became concerned about quality of life, particularly as a mom of two young girls. Research shows that exercise heals the brain. As a competitive triathlete, she sees how her regular workouts benefit her neurodegenerative condition. Sara also wears a lot of hats – she’s a physician at Cleveland Clinic and a clinical faculty member at Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED).

After Sara’s diagnosis, her neurologist at Cleveland Clinic, Benjamin Walter, M.D., gave her a list of research studies on Parkinson’s at the Clinic. One of them was the CYCLE (CYClical Lower Extremity Exercise for Parkinson’s trial) study run by Jay L. Alberts, Ph.D., vice chair of innovations within the Neurological Institute.

Sara enrolled in the trial, through which Dr. Alberts aims to determine if long-term, high-intensity aerobic exercise can slow the advancement of PD. She soon realized how much exercise helped reduce her symptoms. She had always been an athlete but because of increasing stiffness and fatigue had given up running.

Seeing the research that’s also being done by NEOMED researcher Sheila Fleming, Ph.D., a key opinion leader in behavioral neuroscience and Parkinson’s disease, Sara says that research offers a lot of hope for the quality of her future. And when Dr. Fleming recently received a $1.5 million Notice of Award from the Department of Defense/United States Army Medical Research to support her research, “Modeling Cognitive Dysfunction in Parkinson’s Disease and the Impact of Exercise,” the two became even further connected – Dr. Sara Whittingham is also a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. And Dr. Alberts is a consultant on Dr. Fleming’s project.

Sara earned a spot at the 2023 Ironman World Championship in Kona in October. It was an opportunity to raise even more awareness and support for Parkinson’s disease research, including fundraising to support research at NEOMED.

Update: She did it!

Posted Oct. 16

Sara completed the Ironman, saying afterward: "I met the most amazing women from all over the world, each with their own incredible stories.

"I am so happy that I was able to share this experience with so many people, and I hope that it truly inspires other to keep finding way to Holomua (move forward in Hawaiian), and find a way to become the very best versions of ourselves no matter what our limitations."

Sara’s story

Sara shares her thoughts on her Parkinson’s diagnosis and on her preparation for the Ironman.

A woman in workout gear focuses while lifting weights.

Sara’s supporters

Supporters of Sara’s Ironman race include Northeast Ohio Medical University, the Cleveland Clinic, Oswald Companies, Leppo Rents and InMotion.

Parkinson’s Research at NEOMED

NEOMED researcher Sheila Fleming, Ph.D., above right, a key opinion leader in behavioral neuroscience and Parkinson’s disease, leads a lab that strives to slow the most common age-related neurodegenerations that affect humans. Explore the Neurodegenerative Disease and Aging Research Focus Area at NEOMED.

Become a supporter

Parkinson’s disease (According to the National Institutes of Health):

  • 2nd most common neurodegenerative disorder in the United States.
  • 60 years or older – most people diagnosed with PD
  • 5 to 10% people with PD are diagnosed before the age of 50.
  • 1 million – Americans estimated to have PD.
  • $14 billion annually – the cost of treating PD
  • $6.3 billion annually – indirect costs, such as those associated with the loss of productivity.
  • 1,000s more – Given the progressive nature of disabilities associated with PD, the disease impacts spouses, children, and other caregivers.
  • 2X – The number of people diagnosed with PD in the United States is expected to double by 2040.

Support Parkinson’s research at NEOMED now!


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