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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 18, 2010

Contagious energy

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Vicki Beck interprets her friend Audrey in an abstract painting. Art and exercise are among the former skier's passions.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Although she needs help now, Beck continues to work out. "I love activity and sports ... I can't imagine not doing it," she said.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Vicki Beck, who has an exhibit in Honolulu coming up, shows off her abstract painting of Olive, her daughter's dog.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Solo art exhibit, Vicki Beck

Reception: 4-6:30 p.m. May 8

Exhibit: May 2-28

Gallery on the Pali, Unitarian Church, 2500 Pali Highway


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Parkinson's disease is generally characterized by tremors, slowed motion, rigid muscles, and impaired posture and balance, according to the Mayo Clinic Health Letter. It often starts with a tremor in one hand, and can eventually cause slowing or freezing of movement. It can lead to loss of automatic movements such as blinking, smiling and swinging of the arms when walking, speech changes, and sometimes even dementia. While deep brain stimulation surgery may slow Parkinson's progression, there is no cure.

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Vicki Beck first made an impression on me about 15 years ago, when I noticed that she simply glowed with joy in the gym alongside the other women in my circuit and aerobics classes. On those days when I had to drag myself in, she had the power to energize me.

Beck was also active alongside me a few years later, in a dance-oriented exercise class called Nia. She really grooved to the music and got into the freedom and passion of Nia. But she was sometimes a little unsteady on her feet, with tremors in her hands, arms and legs. She couldn't always make it all the way through the class.

As a few more years passed, Beck began arriving at the gym with the help of a walker. In spite of increasing involuntary movements, she still exuded happiness and ambition. She was an inspiration.

Beck, now 60, was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the age of 45. Although the disease has caused increased debilitation over the years, she doesn't let it get in the way of her passion. Her spirit and strength are contagious.


This semester, Beck turned up in my painting class at the Academy Art Center at Linekona. An assistant carries her materials and helps her organize canvases and brushes. Although her tremors make it difficult to control her body, she paints vital, exuberant portraits of friends, family and pets in over-the-top colors. Her passion for art is unbridled.

Beck's painting teacher at the Academy Art Center, George Woollard, admires her tenacity. "She is willing to pursue her art on equal terms with other students in spite of her obvious handicap. Her work is above all fresh and dramatic. She is currently pursuing the concept of portraiture as a means of bringing individual identity to her works," he said.

Catharine Heftel Rolph, a friend who is helping Beck with her art show said, "She has been an inspiration to me. She is out there living a meaningful life," in spite of adversity. Rolph lived through her mother's battle with Parkinson's, so she is well aware of the challenges that come with the degenerative disease.


Beck was born and raised in New York City. She was living in Colorado, downhill skiing and climbing "14ers," mountains of 14,000 feet or more, when she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. It was a bolt out of the blue. There was no family history of the disease and she had always been healthy. "I was not expecting it. It completely surprised me," she said.

Beck has undergone six deep brain stimulation surgeries to help stem the disease.

DBS involves implanting an electrode deep within the parts of the brain that control movement. The amount of stimulation delivered by the electrode is controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin in her upper chest. A wire that travels under her skin connects the device, called a pulse generator, to the electrode. "It seems to slow it down and make the Parkinson's more manageable," she explained.


Although she is often tired and notes, "Over time it gets harder and harder to maintain the level of activity I like," Beck continues to work out. "I love activity and sports, and it energizes me. I can't imagine not doing it."

Although most people will not suffer a debilitating disease such as Parkinson's, Beck said, "If you want to feel good you have to work for it.

"As you get older, there will be other kinds of diseases that will visit you. Over time, you're better off energizing with exercise."