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Muhammad Ali's Parkinson Center Spreads Care

‘We want the standard of care here to be the same for everybody,’ says Lonnie Ali

A knockout idea produced the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

The Ali Center is part of the renowned Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. The center handles about 10,000 patient visits a year, including nearly 1,000 new Parkinson's patients last year. Approximately 1.5 million Americans suffer from the disease. It is estimated that figure will spike dramatically in the next decade.

The disease is on the rise because advanced age is the biggest risk factor, says Abraham Lieberman, M.D., who cofounded the Ali Center in 1997 with the former heavyweight champion and local businessman and philanthropist Jimmy Walker.

"Muhammad was reluctant to be a poster boy'' for the illness, says Lieberman, who visited Ali at his then-home in Michigan to encourage his involvement in the project. To further his cause, the doctor sent Ali a boxing-inspired poem that appealed to his sense of altruism. The idea worked.

"That is what Muhammad always has been about — that is why he became so great," says Lieberman. "Muhammad always gave of himself."

The Ali Center footprint was expanded to 26,450 square feet in 2013. The center features 30 exam rooms, a balance-and-gait lab, clinical-research areas and a rehabilitation gym. A team of five neurosurgeons also offers what has been called the world's premier deep brain stimulation program.

"It's one thing to say 'Go exercise,' but people also need a comfort zone to go to a Parkinson-specific class where they feel safe," says Darolyn O'Donnell, recreation therapy coordinator for the center.

In the near future, the Ali Center will offer a certification course for Parkinson's caregivers. Community outreach with a bilingual approach is a major focus, including helping patients who might need financial aid.

"People think celebrities get better care, but we want the standard of care here to be the same for everybody," says Lonnie Ali.

Jon Saraceno, who first met Ali covering boxing for USA Today, is freelance journalist covering sports and pop culture.