music to med school

(left to right) Sarah Perez and Jan Grimes reconnected after 13 years when they both attended the 2017 Pennington Biomedical’s Parkinson’s Disease Conference. 

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. One student, Sarah Perez, a 2004 graduate whose specialty was the clarinet, proved to stand out from the others when a conference in 2017 brought the two back together in unexpected ways.

While Grimes continued her life’s dedication to music, Perez decided return to LSU to pursue another field — medicine. After taking her science requirements and the MCAT exam, she moved to the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans for medical school.

In 2006, Grimes noticed a tremor in her thumb, leading her to her own world of medicine. Unable to find an answer in Baton Rouge, she sought help from Baylor Medical School in Houston where she found a doctor who provided her with a diagnosis.

“When I got back in the chair he said, ‘I think you have Parkinsonism,’” she told LSU in an interview. “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 of denial.”

Parkinsonism is a neurological condition that causes a combination of the movement abnormalities seen in Parkinson's disease. Symptoms can include  tremors, slow movement, impaired speech or muscle stiffness.

Perez, unaware of what was happening in Grimes’ life, was going to medical school for neurology, the same field that covers Parkinsonism and other neurological disorders. After graduating medical school and a fellowship at the University of Alabama, she moved back to Louisiana, where she was reunited with her former accompanist.

Grimes and Perez reconnected at Pennington Biomedical’s Parkinson’s Disease Conference. Grimes found out about the conference after speaking at the Louisiana Federation of Music Club and was invited by a woman who just so happened to be Perez’ mother-in-law.

“A woman came up to me and said, 'You've got to meet my daughter-in-law, Sarah Perez,’” Grimes said. 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.”

When Grimes and Perez reunited at the conference, both of them were able to share their passion for music and life of neurological science. The friendship provided Grimes with a neurologist she’s close with and gave Perez a chance to play the clarinet again.

“[Grimes] was an answer to my prayers. Literally a few weeks beforehand I had prayed for an opportunity to play again,” Perez said. “I missed it so much. And two weeks later, I was reunited with Jan. I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Grimes and Perez continue to bring their story to people throughout Louisiana, including performing at the LSU Science Café on May 28. The performance, called “Full Circle: Music, Struggle, Reunion & Inspiration,” included five compositions as well as the retelling of their story.

“We use this as a platform,” Perez said. “The real message we want to convey is that there is hope — there is life after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. [Grimes] is living beautifully with Parkinson’s, just as she lived beautifully anyway.”

The eighth annual Parkinson’s Conference will be held on July 30 from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Pennington Biomedical’s Conference Center in Baton Rouge.

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