As a young boy, Stewart Wallace rode his bike to school every day with his dad. They fished, traveled the country and surfed together — until one day when his father, Jeffrey Wallace, woke up with a disease that changed everything.
Jeffrey Wallace was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1998. The cause remains unknown.
His son Stewart watched his dad progressively lose his eyesight, speech, sleep and balance. They could no longer do their favorite activities together.
“My dad has severe slurred speech, impaired balance and insomnia,” Stewart Wallace said. “His eyes won’t hold open. He can’t do many of the things he long enjoyed, like surfing and martial arts.”
UF Health recently received a $20 million gift from the Laurel and Lee Fixel Foundation. The gift will be used to establish the Norman Fixel Institution for Neurological Diseases, an institute that focuses on advancing research, technological innovation and clinical care for Parkinson’s, a disease that affects about one million people every year.
The University of Florida will match the gift, doubling the donation to $40 million. This will create a $100 million campaign for additional resources for scientists and doctors working toward advance treatments for neurological disorders.
“We have amazing faculty dedicated to Parkinson’s and other neurologic diseases,” said Michael Okun, M.D., a professor and chair of the department of neurology and executive director of the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases at UF Health. “One of the primary goals of this gift is to attract additional world-class physicians, scientists and academicians who can make an even bigger impact together.”
Wallace, 21, is a senior at UF who is passionate about fighting for advancements in Parkinson’s research after witnessing his father suffer from it.
“He’s such a handsome man, a former national champion martial artist and a doctor,” he said. “He was afflicted with early onset way too early in his life.”
Doctors predicted that Jeffrey Wallace would only live for seven to 10 years after his diagnosis. He has now survived with Parkinson’s for 20 years due to his consistent treatment at UF Health.
“Growing up, my dad has never once cried or complained to me about his condition,” said Stewart Wallace. “My dad has had seven brain surgeries and gets wonderful care here under Dr. Okun.”
The efforts being made to advance care and treatment for Parkinson’s disease gives Jeffrey Wallace hope.
“My dad actually called me and told me about this so excited,” said Stewart Wallace. “While he knows that he is probably too late for potential cures, he is excited about a future free of PD.”
The University of Florida is home to one of the leading institutes for Parkinson’s disease treatment and clinical research, according to Kelly Foote, M.D., a professor of neurosurgery and co-director of the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases at UF Health.
UF President Kent Fuchs said the Fixels’ gift will be pivotal in raising the University of Florida’s prominence as a global leader in neurodegenerative disorder research.
Although Jeffrey Wallace has been through years of suffering, his family says this doesn’t stop him from living his life to the fullest.
“It made our lives better in some ways because we live like we’re dying, have traveled extensively and enjoy life every day as much as possible,” said Susan Wallace, Jeffrey’s caregiver and wife of 34 years. “Of course, life is harder every day. He chokes and falls, can’t drive and needs help with minor tasks.”
The Wallace family is confident that the future for those battling Parkinson’s disease is bright due to the efforts made by UF Health.
“This gives me so much hope that there will be a new breakthrough that will help our family or others coming behind us,” said Susan Wallace. “There must be a cure around the corner.”
The Lauren and Lee Fixel Foundation is dedicated to raising funds for developments in the treatment for the disease. It was created after the Fixel family was affected by a loved one with Parkinson’s.
The Norman Fixel Institution for Neurological Diseases will also research and care for other neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, Lewy body, ALS, dystonia and concussions. It will be completed by July 1.