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STEVENS POINT, Wis. (AP) — The first sign something was wrong for Kevin Ruder was what he calls the pill-rolling.
Stevens Point's recently retired police chief remembers that first symptom when it appeared eight years ago. His thumb and forefinger would twitch, as if he were rolling a pill between them.
"I didn't think much of it at the time," he said. "If I was cognizant, it wouldn't be there. If I was doing something, it wasn't a problem; it wasn't anything but something that someone noticed. It didn't bother me."
He was a fit 42-year-old at the time. But eventually, he went to the doctor and got the stunning diagnosis: early-onset Parkinson's disease. Because he developed the chronic neurological disease at a young age, it would be a slow and steady, but unrelenting, progression.
"I was devastated," said Kevin, now 49.
Kevin and his wife, Dawn, sat down with a Stevens Point Journal Media (http://spjour.nl/1zhMtZv ) reporter recently to discuss Kevin's diagnosis, his determination to fight the illness and how it affected his entire family and their friends.
Kevin's first thought, after he processed the news, was for his career. He wasn't nearly done with his path through the Stevens Point Police Department, and he worried the diagnosis might force him to walk away before he was ready.
"I was not chief yet," he said. "I had all these plans."
The Nekoosa native started at the city's police department in 1988 and planned to follow in his father's footsteps to one day be a police chief. He'd worked his way up through the ranks of the department, from patrol all the way to captain, holding several positions between.
He served as the city's first school liaison officer. He worked in the detective bureau. He was charged with overseeing the city's patrol and SWAT team operations. He developed programs to educate people about guns.
In a lot of ways, he and his job were inseparable.
"I wanted to be a part of as much as I could with the department," Kevin said. "I wanted to learn everything about the department and be an active member of it because of the fact that, that was my ultimate goal, was to become the chief of the department."
He achieved that goal in 2009.
Kevin learned that the diagnosis did not mean he had to walk away. He kept in his office a target from the pistol range as a reminder that, despite his tremors, he was still a straight shooter. Although he knew the day would come when he'd have to retire — and it did this year — he was still competent to serve and protect Stevens Point.
"Realizing that the disease itself is slow-progressing and I could work with it, I think I did a lot while I was chief with Parkinson's disease," Kevin said. "It didn't inhibit me in any form or fashion."
The first sign to Dawn that something might be wrong with her husband was the way he held his wallet.
"This is funny," she said. "Back then it wasn't. He would open up his wallet and he'd be shaking and I'm like, 'Oh, come on, you cheapskate.'"
Dawn said she didn't fully understand her husband's diagnosis when he first received it. She didn't realize the magnitude of the disease until she and her husband spent three months apart while he was training with the FBI academy.
"The kids and I flew out to see him graduate and as soon as we got off the plane and looked at him, my heart just sank," she said. "All the signs were there."
The couple determined that Kevin wouldn't be alone with his disease. As it progressed, he had a partner in his wife who would make him laugh when he was down and who would wait patiently for him if he took a little longer getting to the car than he used to. Where he struggles, Dawn steps up.
"I always tell Kevin, it's 'We have Parkinson's,'" she said. "It's always 'we.'"
Their three children took the news well, Dawn said, and Kevin also had the backing of his second family — the officers at the police department.
When times were particularly tough, they relied upon their friends and their faith.
"I've got a strong belief in God and faith that this is going to be a new chapter in my life," Kevin said.
Parkinson's cannot be cured. It is treated with three primary therapeutic approaches.
"Usually, we start right away with physical therapy, and then pharmacological therapy," said Dr. Marco Dotti, a neurologist at Ministry St. Michael's Hospital in Stevens Point. "Multiple medications at low dosage, like a cocktail of medication for Parkinson's disease."
Surgery is also an option for more advanced cases, he said. But that wasn't called for with Kevin.
Dotti said those with Parkinson's shouldn't think of the diagnosis as an end to life as they know it.
"They can live a normal life, enjoy retirement," he said. "It is a little bit more challenging when they're diagnosed young."
A healthy social life is important, he said. Dotti encourages patients not to be ashamed of being seen with tremors and to engage in physical activity, because some evidence shows physical activity can slow progression of the disease.
"The most important thing is to be optimistic," he said. "It's something that you can live with, but you need to live."
Kevin said he intends to do just that in his retirement. He realized he needed to take that step for his own health while on a two-week vacation, when he realized he was able to get the physical activity he needed when he was better rested and not exhausted from working every day.
That helped him realize that, for his health, he had to hang up his gun belt and badge. Kevin retired from the department April 10, just as he had planned. The city hosted a ceremony in his honor, where he assured the community he would remain an involved resident of Stevens Point.
Kevin said he and his wife intend to continue their roles as active volunteers for a variety of causes in the community. He plans to continue his involvement with Guns n' Hoses, the charity softball game he started to raise money for local veterans. He plans to become an advocate to help people affected by neurological disorders like Parkinson's.
Although retirement still seemed surreal shortly after leaving the city's police force, Kevin said he's working on developing a new routine.
"Take one day at a time," he said. "It's all you can do. Pray for the best and play the hand that's dealt you."
Information from: Stevens Point Journal Media, http://www.stevenspointjournal.com
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