Positivity and Perseverance: Richard Cebelak’s journey with Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a challenging diagnosis. It requires adjustments to day-to-day life and a change in regular habits. But for Richard Cebelak, Parkinson’s would not get him out of his routine.

When Richard was diagnosed in 2015, he and his wife, Patricia, knew it would be a long journey they would undertake as one.

“Richard’s positive attitude meant we would take one step at a time together,” Patricia said. “At that point, we understood how fragile life was, and we would deal with it hand in hand.”

For Richard, “dealing with it” meant staying active. In addition to following medical guidance for treatment, Richard and Patricia went to exercise classes, spent time with friends, met other people with Parkinson’s and volunteered when able. Grand Rapids itself also had a role to play.

Richard Cebelak

“Living in the area, I knew of people who came from Petoskey, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo — all to visit the facilities that exist in our own backyard. Being in this medical community, it gave us the support we needed,” Patricia said.

After adjusting to life with Parkinson’s, Richard and Patricia regularly attended VAI’s Winterfest Celebration, which raises funds to support Parkinson’s research at the Institute. They found it the perfect opportunity to learn about the disease directly from scientists, something that was more impactful than literature.

“You hear about the scientists working to make the world better and also get to talk to them and learn from them. It really gives you hope,” Patricia said.

Most importantly for them, they were supporting a local cause with global impact: This wasn’t an institute in another country, Patricia said, the research is happening right in their own backyard.

“Seeing the Van Andel family be involved, meeting the researchers, talking with other supporters — it built a connection of trust with the Institute that made us believers in the impact a place like this can have,” Patricia said.

Richard wanted to change the perception of Parkinson’s, making it a point to maintain his daily errands, keep to habits and, most importantly, remain out in the community. For him, this was the opportunity to show that good things can come from challenges, Patricia said, but it was also his way of tackling any problems. You could never slow Richard down, and his friends knew that:  they took him ice fishing in 2021 — five years after his initial diagnosis.

“That was Richard, the one who’s friends would build a special rig to help him go ice fishing with Parkinson’s disease, the one who would go on his solo trips to the lake every Sunday,” Cebelak said. “The disease wouldn’t slow him down, and it was inspiring to get to spend so much time with him doing what he liked to do.”

Richard stuck to his routine to the very end, going on a fishing trip on the day of his passing in June 2021. His legacy lives on in the fond memories of friends and family, and through the impact he and Patricia made through their support of research.