Jeff Baldwin tries to live by an adage he once heard.
“Yesterday is gone. Forget it. Tomorrow never comes. Don’t worry. Today is here. Get busy.”
Yesterday, for the Omaha man, was about overcoming a years-long addiction to alcohol.
Tomorrow might mean worsening symptoms of the 71-year-old’s Parkinson’s disease.
But today, Baldwin wants to continue helping others. He’s lent support to others in recovery from addiction. And he was active in the Boy Scouts and a local camp for children with cancer and blood disorders.
“I think it’s a matter of the world does not revolve around me. The major thing I can do for other people is to help them. At the end of the day, I hope that people will just remember me as making a difference.”
In high school, Baldwin discovered he had a knack for chemistry, so he pursued a pharmacy career. After completing degrees in New York, Baldwin enrolled at the University of Kentucky in Lexington for a doctorate in pharmacy.
Baldwin’s first battle with disease started during school. He turned to alcohol. He didn’t have close friends nearby. And he felt a little isolated and a little homesick. Booze made him feel friendly.
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In Kentucky, Baldwin was on a small salary and couldn’t afford much in the way of alcohol. When drinks were available, especially on someone else’s dime, he drank to excess.
Baldwin later landed a job as an assistant professor in the college of pharmacy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He was still drinking. About five years into his career there, he was struggling with alcoholism. It caused him to miss sometimes three or four days of work a month.
“I basically would go home and fall into a bottle of vodka and spend the night there,” Baldwin said. “I was as functioning as you can be when you’ve got a hangover most of the time.”
Alcohol use disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic, can range in severity. People who battle it are often unable to limit the amount of alcohol they drink, feel an urge to drink alcohol and continue to drink alcohol even though they know it’s causing physical, social or interpersonal problems.
Eventually, Baldwin noticed abdominal pain. He suspected it was an alcohol-related problem with his liver.
Baldwin said he “took the bull by the horns” and talked to his boss. By the end of the day, he was enrolled in a rehabilitation program.
“It took me a couple years to come to terms with doing something about it. When my health started to deteriorate, it scared me,” Baldwin said.
He spent 37 days there. His wife visited, and he talked to his two children over the phone. He slept poorly and was jittery while he detoxed. But the program worked.
Baldwin has been sober since May 20, 1982. He came to realize “there’s a much better life to be had” if he stayed clean. He learned to avoid alcohol and was prepared to leave events if alcohol started calling to him. It got easier over time and it’s no longer an issue, he said.
He continued with his career at UNMC. He developed and taught two elective courses for pharmacy students. One teaches students about substance abuse and how to treat it. The other teaches students what it’s like to recover from addiction. Each student gives up a habit they think is problematic, like fingernail biting for example.
Baldwin also organized support groups for health professionals recovering from addiction.
“There’s an incredible amount of shame and guilt,” Baldwin said. “Addiction’s an equal opportunity destroyer.”
After getting sober, Baldwin also got more involved with his sons’ Boy Scouts troop. He kept up his involvement after his sons were finished with the program.
Baldwin has been open about overcoming addiction and channeled his energy into helping others, said Dr. Paul Paulman.
Paulman, who is Baldwin’s primary care physician, also considers Baldwin a friend and colleague. They’ve known each other for more than 20 years.
“Jeff is an exceptional individual,” Paulman said. “He’s interested in the development of young people and he’s just one of those great guys. ... He’s given way more than most of us will.”
In 2009, Baldwin noticed a trembling in his left hand and his left cheek. He noticed he was drooling on occasion. His handwriting was getting smaller and more difficult to read. His voice was getting hoarse.
An official diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease came four years later. Baldwin initially didn’t show many of the “cardinal features” of the disease, such as tremors, rigidity, balance issues or slowness of movement, said Dr. Harris Frankel, a neurologist who treats Baldwin.
“Like many conditions, whether neurological or otherwise, sometimes it just takes time for them to declare themselves,” said Frankel, who is also chief medical officer at Nebraska Medicine.
About 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease annually in the United States, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. The symptoms of the degenerative neurological disease progress at varying rates. Some individuals, like Baldwin, have milder symptoms and are on low doses of medication, Frankel said. Others see the disease progress quickly and lose the ability to do basic day-to-day activities.
“There’s a lot of power in mind over matter,” Frankel said. “Jeff has used that to his advantage. Jeff has got a fabulous outlook on life. His ability to remain focused on things that are really important to him, beyond his condition, is key.”
Baldwin said he’s been lucky. While his symptoms have worsened slightly over the last 10 years, he knows other people have more severe issues. He’s still able to climb stairs and keep up with other typical activities.
His handwriting is still difficult to read, but he tries to slow down and write bigger. He sometimes falls behind if he’s walking in a group. He eats more slowly. He can’t eat salads because it takes too long to chew.
Baldwin, who retired earlier this year, takes medication at 5 a.m., 11 a.m., 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. He tries to keep busy physically by doing yard work, shoveling snow and walking when he can. He plans to join a gym this year.
“I’m grateful for the time that I have. I try not to second guess,” Baldwin said. “I just deal with whatever comes along on a given day.”
Today is here. Baldwin is busy.
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