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Woman with young-onset Parkinson's disease sets sights on one of the world's highest peaks

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A Sunshine Coast woman with young-onset Parkinson’s disease is proving no mountain is too high by trekking to one of highest peaks in the world.

Sandra Gerschwitz is part of a group of eight currently trekking to the 10th highest mountain in the world – Mount Annapurna in the Himalayas – as part of a fundraising mission.

Diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease (YOPD) at 45 years of age, four years on Ms Gerschwitz is in Nepal embarking on the walk of her life to raise awareness for the disease.

While her group was originally trekking to the Mount Everest Base Camp, poor weather meant they were unable to fly to Lukla Airport to get to their destination.

Sandra Gerschwitz (left), Shake It Up Australia fundraiser Gary Gillett and another hiker, who have been training hard ahead of their journey.

With this unexpected turn of events, the group opted to trek to the Mount Annapurna Base Camp instead.

“I am disappointed and excited at the same time,” Ms Gerschwitz said.

“Apparently it is more beautiful, slightly easier and about 1000m lower, so 4130m instead of 5364m. It will be 110km instead of 130km.

“I still feel simply awesome doing this.

“I’ve found having this condition, people tend to put you into a box and look at you differently, so being part of this group is amazing. There are people that expect someone walking slower and make adjustments to help.”

Sunshine Coast’s Sandra Gerschwitz and Shake It Up fundraiser Gary Gillett are trekking to one of the highest mountains in the world as part of a fundraising mission.

While making it to Everest Base Camp was off the cards this time, she hoped her journey would help raise funds for Shake It Up Australia.

Partnering with The Michael J. Fox Foundation, the non-government organisation funds Australian research to help find a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Leading her group is fundraiser and seasoned hiker Gary Gillett, who said the team had not surrendered but adapted to the situation.

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“The forecast for the next few days in the mountains is poor, so there are no flights which puts pressure on everyone with the available time and costs,” Mr Gillett said.

“As the Everest trail is inaccessible and with hundreds trying to get out of Lukla, the airport at Pohkara to get to Mount Annapurna is bigger and more accessible to larger aircraft.

“Everyone is very disappointed after preparing all year for Mount Everest Base Camp, but safety of everyone is paramount, and always will be.”

The team of eight are on their way to Mount Annapurna Base Camp.

Mr Gillett said they hoped to raise $28,000 for the cause and had already reached more than $11,000 of their target.

“Any donation goes directly to Shake It Up foundation research,” he said.

“It’s a great cause and there are more people at a younger age being diagnosed. There is current research being conducted that involves DNA testing and they are wanting about 20,000 people. It all takes money to do these things.”

Ms Gerschwitz’s condition is characterised by the typical symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: rigidity, slowness of movement and right-sided stiffness.

She also suffers postural instability, however, the progression of these symptoms is slower. The most common initial symptoms of YOPD are rigidity and painful cramps.

The group on a bus in Nepal.

Since being diagnosed, she said every aspect of her life had been affected.

“I’m thankful to one particular specialist in Adelaide who suggested walking more to me, to help keep the dopamine up,” she said.

“Parkinson’s disease is not just an older person’s disease.

“Twenty per cent of all sufferers are diagnosed under 50 years of age and Michael J. Fox was diagnosed at just 29 years of age.”

Leading up to the trek, Ms Gerschwitz’s training consisted of a lot of walking, climbs up Mount Ngungun and Mount Coolum plus boot camp, which included personal training and physio therapy.

“I will keep this training up when I get home, because YOPD will not go away. I plan to do the 35km Bloody Big Walk and after that up another mountain somewhere,” she said.

To donate visit Virtual Trek.

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