Full Circle: From Music to Medicine
BATON ROUGE - As a professional in residence in the LSU School of Music for nearly 30 years, Jan Grimes has accompanied more than 600 students in their performances, from juried work to senior recitals.
“But that doesn’t count the master classes I also played when guests would come to campus,” Grimes said. “I played with a lot of wonderful people and sometimes on really short notice. But that was part of the gig, you had to make it look like you’ve practiced with them for weeks even if it’s been two days.”
Grimes has played the piano, even when she wasn’t working with students or more recently, serving as the church organist at St. John the Evangelist in Plaquemine.
“I play the piano every day, and I think it’s therapeutic, actually,” she said.
In 2006, however, she noticed a tremor in her thumb.
“My thumb just seemed to be tremoring at certain times, or a lot of the time, when I was just resting. So, I went through a battery of tests at The NeuroMedical Center and nothing came up. So when I had the opportunity to go to Houston with a colleague, I did,” Grimes said. “Baylor Medical School had a special section where they were treating musicians with things like the Alexander technique and relaxation.”
The American Society for the Alexander Technique describes that technique as a method to relieve pain by “learning better coordination of the musculoskeletal system” to change bad postural habits.
While in Houston, the doctor asked Grimes to walk across his office.
“When I got back in the chair he said, ‘I think you have Parkinsonism.’” He said that I didn’t swing my left arm as much as my right. I am glad I found out what it was and to confront it. But I spent a lot of time on that river denial,” she said.
Of the 600 students Grimes helped prepare for their senior recital, one has become an important part of her life: 2004 School of Music graduate Sarah Perez, from Port Vincent, La.
“I went to LSU to be a clarinetist,” Perez said. “I initially thought about double majoring in music and pre-med, but it just didn’t work out, so I chose music.”
But Perez’s path towards medicine didn’t end there.
“After I graduated in 2004, I took one or two gigs. I came pretty close and I came to realize that it’s really, really, really difficult to get a professional musician job, especially as a clarinetist,” Perez said. “Also around 2004, I met my husband, who is also from Louisiana. We played together in Tiger Band.”
She was working as an optician at Sam’s Club when she realized she could do more to help people.
“I decided to enroll at LSU again for summer semester. It took me about a year and a half, but I took all my sciences, I took my MCAT, I scored just as good, if not better than other science majors, and I went to medical school,” Perez said. “While I was in medical school, I was just fascinated with the brain. It has some personal connection because my dad died of a brain tumor. I could read about the brain forever and not get bored. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we know about the brain.”
After four years of medical school at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, then a fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she moved back to Louisiana, where she was reunited with her former accompanist.
“Bill (Grimes) and I were speaking at the Louisiana Federation of Music Clubs annual meeting and I was telling my Parkinson’s story. Afterward, a woman came up to me and said you’ve got to meet my daughter-in-law, Sarah Perez. And we talked about Sarah. But little did I know, it was the same Sarah because I knew her as Sarah Roberts. So I looked her up and realized I knew her and couldn’t believe she was a neurologist. It was fabulously shocking and great news.”
“She’s a celebrity in my mind. She can take a piece (of music), and it seems like in 30 seconds she plays it perfectly every time. So I made a point to go to a conference in Baton Rouge to see her.”
Grimes and Perez reconnected at Pennington Biomedical’s Parkinson’s Disease Conference.
“I often get invited to speak at Parkinson’s support group meetings and venues. When we were reunited in 2017, I asked if she would want to speak with me. Not only is she a wonderful musician, but she has a wonderful outlook on life that can help so many people. There are so many people who don’t have hope. And she is living beautifully with Parkinson’s, just as she lived beautifully anyway. But it’s like it brought out even more of the genuine person that she is. Which I think is a powerful message for people. We use this as a platform. The real message we want to convey is there is hope, there is life after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. People just have to realize that,” Perez said.
The friendship also gave Grimes a chance to play the clarinet again.
“She was an answer to my prayers. Literally a few weeks beforehand I had prayed for an opportunity to play again. I missed it so much. And two weeks later, I was reunited with Jan. I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Perez also became Grimes’ neurologist.
“It’s amazing because I feel like she really knows me. She’s not staring at a computer typing the entire time I’m talking with her. She really knows me and listens to me and cares. She really cares. I feel it’s a wonderful gift. God really put us together at a great time,” Grimes said.
They continue to bring their story to people throughout Louisiana, most recently, performing at the LSU Science Café.
“I guess I want to prove at some level that I can play. I’m not going to play at a competitive level anymore. I’m not going to play those huge pieces I used to. But those are nice memories. I will continue to play as long as I can and as long as people appreciate it, even when it’s not all that great. If I can make people happy with it, I will do it,” Grimes said.
The eighth annual Parkinson’s Conference will be held on Saturday, July 30, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Pennington Biomedical’s Conference Center. For more information, visit https://web.cvent.com/event/5e50c413-213d-4011-87fb-c022053c82da/summary.