Q&A: Amazing Race Canada Winner Tim Hague Leverages Parkinson’s Disease for New Career

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After reading his book, it’s hard not to conclude that the world needs more Tim Hague. Or more precisely, the world needs more people with Hague’s aggressive optimism in the face of adversity. If everyone approached life like Hague does, the world would be a nicer — and quite possibly saner, definitely more hopeful — place.

Part memoir and part self-help tome, Perseverance: The Seven Skills You Need to Survive, Thrive, and Accomplish More Than You Ever Imagined, charts Hague’s life from birth to present, a narrative arc propelled by the author’s belief that, in the scheme of things, he has been spectacularly lucky despite wrangling obstacles many would identify as challenging.

And that luck, Hague argues, happens to include being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011 at the age of 46, well below the median age of 60-plus when most sufferers learn they have the degenerative central nervous system disorder (though not actor Michael J. Fox, Parkinson’s most recognizable face, who was diagnosed in 1991 at age 30).  

As Hague repeatedly states in Perseverance, Parkinson’s has given him much more than it has stripped away, notably, a leg-up in landing a coveted spot on the debut season Amazing Race Canada in 2013 which he ultimately won alongside his Race partner, son Tim Hague Jr.

The notoriety from that win led Hague —  a former nurse pushed out of his job by the effects of Parkinson’s — to becoming a globe-trotting, sought-after motivational speaker and author, roles bringing him to the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon Monday, May 7, 7 p.m., for an appearance as part of the June Callwood Lecture Series.

The Amazing Race Canada win also gave the “Tims,” as Hague refers to himself and his son in the book, $250,000, two 2014 Chevrolet Corvettes, and 10 trips for two anywhere in the world Air Canada flies to complement those national bragging rights. Not too shabby. But still, Parkinson’s…

More than anything, though, Hague has emerged as a voice of positivity for the estimated five million people, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, battling Parkinson’s worldwide. To the rest of us, Perseverance offers an inspiring true-life story plus the titular seven life skills — “Let Go of the Happiness Myth,” “Understand the Nature of Luck,” “Accept Limits,” “Cease Striving,” “Take Every Advantage,” “Pay Attention,” and “Find Community,” each fleshed out in the book — that are bound to raise our game while enhancing our happiness, delivered by a guy who would know. 

Samaritanmag reached Hague in hometown Winnipeg ahead of his Toronto appearance to talk about the book, living with Parkinson’s, why he started his own charity U-Turn Parkinson’s, the benefits of yoga, Michael J. Fox, and why he feels so fortunate.

Perseverance is part-memoir, part self-help book and part Amazing Race Canada show journal. Was that the plan going in?

That was the plan (laughs). It’s my story.

Plus, I would guess it’s a declarative response to questions you are constantly asked. Fair statement?

Yes, very fair. I tried to take some of those questions and answers a bit deeper than you can within 30 seconds or however long you typically have to speak with someone.

It’s surely surprising to some that you characterize Parkinson’s as having been a good thing even while acknowledging its enormous physical and emotional tolls.

People often don’t understand that assertion, and even though people don’t argue with me, you can see that they want to. The reality is, because of Parkinson’s, we got on the Amazing Racing. [Hague contends that his status as a sufferer made him a more attractive candidate to the show’s producers]. And despite Parkinson’s, we somehow won the Amazing Race. And that has led to a speaking career that has taken me around the world, this book, countless friends I never would have met otherwise, and probably most importantly, it’s given me the opportunity to really examine my life. I was born in Texas and grew up in Kansas City and now live in Winnipeg: two of the greatest nations on Earth. I was adopted in 1964 by a white family, having been born to a young white girl impregnated by an older black man. There was not a line-up out the door looking for those kinds of kids (laughs). My parents adopted not only me, but five more like me. We were never rich, but we had what we needed in life which gave me the opportunity to become a nurse and earn a very good living. On top of that, I ended up with a wife of 32 years, Sheryl, four kids and a granddaughter and the Amazing Race. Anyone who would compare themselves to me would feel life had been unfair to them.

People must be projecting onto you all the time. Is there pressure tied to that?

Sometimes. I mean, I do live with Parkinson’s. And just because I teach a positive way of approaching [the disease] doesn’t mean I don’t wake up depressed some days. And it doesn’t mean I don’t have a tough time talking or walking or any of the other things that come along with Parkinson’s. I still have to address the same shitty days that everybody has with this disease. ‘So, do you want to be like me? You probably are more like me than you realize. We both face the same issues. The difference is how we chose to address them.’

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve discovered as you’ve travelled the world giving these talks?

Probably how universal this message is. It stems from my journey with Parkinson’s, but it crosses every single barrier I’ve come up against: illness, kids facing bullying, the CEO facing the challenges of the job. We all have things that push us to that place where we are not sure what we are going to do. Therein lies the discussion of perseverance, of taking that next step even when we don’t have a clue how things are going to turn out, or the odds are things are going to turn our poorly. We can still persevere and be amazed where that leads us.

A man named Matt Embry, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, made a documentary called Living Proof which, among other things, called into question the role of the MS Society of Canada which he suggests are at cross-purposes with their base. In your view, is advocacy group (and registered charity) Parkinson Canada simpatico with its constituent base in what it’s looking for in terms of treatment?

(Pause). Yes and no. They are very compassionate and care deeply about this community. And they are pursuing things we have always told them we wanted them to pursue, which is a cure. We desperately want a cure. But the reality is, we [as a society] haven’t really cured much.  And it’s far more likely that I will die with Parkinson’s than live to see a cure. Parkinson Canada is starting to hear that message though they are still behind where I’d like them to be. I started my own charity in Manitoba, U-Turn Parkinson’s, that focuses exclusively on wellness and programs that help people live well with the disease today. In that, we find hope. And while there can be hope in the hunt for a cure, there is tangible hope in the present and in knowing that you can move better, walk better, talk better, think better and feel better because you are taking proactive steps to live well in the present. I want to stress that I have the utmost respect for Parkinson Canada. I just want to encourage them in the wellness aspect.

One thing featured in the book and on the U-Turn Parkinson’s site (name inspired by an Amazing Race game-play tactic) is the value of yoga in the day-to-day management of your disease... 

Yoga has been huge. And I often tell people in the Parkinson’s community — and it blows their mind — that if I had to give up everything in my Parkinson’s management arsenal save one, I would keep yoga. Yoga is strength, flexibility, balance… so many things.

Michael J. Fox and his Foundation have really helped bring Parkinson’s into the mainstream.  Have you talked with him or his Foundation?

Not yet, but I look forward to that day, as I have deep regard for the work they have done. And I have so much respect for Michael and the way he has brought this disease to the fore. People mostly don’t have a clue about what Parkinson’s is and so, we have to applaud the work they have done in making it more understood.

The thing about Parkinson’s: it’s so diverse. If you’ve seen a person with Parkinson’s, you’ve seen a person with Parkinson’s. If you throw a dozen of us in the room, we all look different. I think the public still has a hard time understanding that. It’s like when I had to give up nursing. I looked like I should be able to work. Yet the fatigue would not allow me to work eight hours a day. I joked that people would be nervous when I came at them with a needle and was shaking. But the mild cognitive impairment was the bigger obstacle. Now that I have been diagnosed, I can look back and see how that prevented me from multi-tasking with all the things the manager of a busy surgical floor has to deal with. There were days I was just in tears, and nobody knew except my wife who said to me, ‘You better talk to your boss.’ But how do you explain that to your colleagues? I didn’t understand that aspect of Parkinson’s at the time. I relate that to the rest of society. It’s hard to see what’s going on inside a person with Parkinson’s beyond the tremors and rigidity.

Anything else people should know?

When we have reached that place where we’ve kicked and clawed and screamed and cried and come to that place where everybody tells us, ‘Just don’t give up,’ we ask ourselves, ‘What do I do now? Because I don’t know what else to do.’ This is where you persevere, and perseverance can be learned. There are tangible, practical, positive steps that we can take to get to the next step, and the next step after that. One day you reach that place where somebody comes along and says, ‘Man, haven’t you been lucky?’ And then I just smile.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.