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Rockford man with Parkinson's earns black belt

"Anytime I thought about quitting, I thought about the people that were there."

ROCKFORD, Mich. — A 62-year-old Rockford man with Parkinson's disease defied the physical odds this month when he earned his black belt. 

Ray Merrils was first diagnosed with Parkinson's when he was 55, the same year he married his wife Nicole. Soon after their wedding, Ray started experiencing tremors on the right side of his body. The couple said they got concerned when he couldn't perform everyday activities.

"I knew something was wrong, but we stayed away from the P-word," Ray said.

Eventually, they connected with Spectrum Health's Dr. Sriram, a movement neurologist. Despite being diagnosed with a progressive, incurable disease, Sriram said he knew right away that Ray was a fighter.

"The one thing we’re going to look for is that little extra oomph factor in [patients]. Ray was very knowledgeable when he came in. He knew about Parkinson’s disease; he knew about what he had to do as well," Sriram said.

Ray ultimately decided to fight the disease without medication, leaning on exercise alone to keep his symptoms at bay. He took up the art of karate after hearing about its benefits and before long, it was a full family activity among his two sons and wife.

"The more exercise you do with Parkinson's, it doesn’t slow it down, but it doesn’t advance it either. It just keeps it in a kind of a limbo stage," said Nicole Merrils. 

Ray quickly climbed the ranks in the dojo, getting belt after belt.

"It’s a bonus working up the belts. That kind of catches you because all of a sudden, one day you wake up as a purple belt—which is pretty high up—and you think 'wow, how did I get here?'" Ray said.

Because Ray was working at high levels without medication, Sriram said he was pushing himself harder than the average patient or athlete.

"Anytime I thought about quitting, I thought about the people that were there. The people are just top notch down there. Everybody’s looking out for everybody else," Ray said.

Ray also attributes his success to Nicole, saying "I owe my life to my wife."

Nicole is eligible to try out for her own black belt, but instead of participating, she opted to watch as a fan from the stands.

"I want to be there to support him," she said.

On the day of his black belt ceremony, Ray passed with flying colors, alongside his sparring partner and oldest son, Joseph.

"Before he could barely kick. Now he kicks about waist high, a little bit higher than the waist sometimes... He can throw some more punches and stuff. His endurance has really improved a lot," said dojo master Terry.

When news of Ray's story hit the ears of MLB legend and Michigan-native Kirk Gibson, he offered an encouraging video message.

"I want to congratulate you on receiving your black belt...I hope to meet you soon," Gibson said.

And meet soon they did. Gibson was in town for a West Michigan Sports Commission luncheon, and Ray got to meet his long-time hero face-to-face.

It's memories like these that Ray says he's grateful for. His memory is slowly getting worse as the years pass, and his Parkinson's symptoms progress. However, Ray says he's not scared and that he is just thankful for the life he gets to live.

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