Worldwide, people with Parkinson’s disease have Michael J. Fox advocating for them.

Working closer to home and behind the scenes of the health care industry is Karen E. Springer.

Karen, ’98 MSN ’02, is a nurse practitioner at Fort Wayne Neurological Center, where she has worked for 30 years. The School of Nursing graduate’s most recent project is an effort to improve care for residents of assisted living facilities who have Parkinson’s. Her plan is to better educate their caregivers.

Parkinson’s disease is a long-term, degenerative, neurological disorder that affects approximately 60,000 Americans each year.

“When people think of Parkinson’s, they think of tremors and slow movement,” she said. “But it affects a host of things. It’s a complex disease. Those who have it need nurses who know how to care for them.”

Karen’ s project, still in its infancy, emerged from a prestigious and intensive training program Karen completed this past October through the Parkinson’s Foundation, a national organization that works to improve care and advance research toward a cure for the disease.

In 2018, Karen was one of just 35 people accepted into the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Nurse Faculty Program at the Parkinson’s Foundation. Karen received her training at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of several sites that hosts the program.

The 40-hour accredited “train the trainer” course offers nurse scholars a chance to develop an independent project and includes a $2,000 stipend.

Since 2009, the program has graduated more than 240 people, mostly professors who teach at undergraduate nursing programs. Those alumni use their training to help educate more than 20,000 nursing students every year.

Help for a growing population

The program is essential, because by 2030 the number of people living with Parkinson’s in the US is expected to rise to 1.2 million, according to Camila Gadala-Maria, a professional educational associate with the Parkinson’s Foundation.

“Our main focus with this program is helping prepare the next generation of nurses for this growing population of people with Parkinson’s,” Gadala-Maria said. “The research we have done shows that nurses, because they are so hands-on, can lead to big improvements for people with Parkinson’s.”

Karen Springer in office

Through her latest project, Karen wants to help nurses and caregivers better understand patients with Parkinson’s and their special needs.

Parkinson’s currently cannot be cured. But better care can improve quality of life, Karen said. And researchers are also studying whether better care can also slow the disease’s progression.

Using her stipend, Karen is working with a Purdue University professor to develop her assisted-living training program. It could include workshops. The pair also plans to create a brochure that people with Parkinson’s can provide their caregivers, outlining patients’ special needs.

For example, it is critical that people with Parkinson’s take their scheduled medication on time. The window for giving medication is much more time-sensitive than for most other diseases, Karen said.

It’s also helpful for nurses and other caregivers to understand specific symptoms, such as how Parkinson’s can limit one’s facial expressions.

“Nurses can misinterpret their patients,” Karen said. “They think their patients are mad at them or depressed because they don’t have a lot of expression due to the Parkinson’s.”

A steady focus

Karen continues to treat patients with a variety of neurological problems, although improving the lives of those with Parkinson’s has become her passion. She said she enjoys the opportunity to care for people over years, and sometimes decades, and to really get to know patients and their families.

Karen is rolling out the new project while she works full time.

But she is used to juggling multiple assignments and activities.

In 1980, Springer graduated with a diploma of nursing from the hospital-based Lutheran School of Nursing in Fort Wayne, now the University St. Francis University. Her career goal was to become a nurse practitioner, so she knew she needed more education.

At Ball State, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees over 16 years while she and her husband, Duane, raised two sons, including one who has spina bifida and special medical needs. And, while she could have attended her hometown’s Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, she chose instead to commute to Ball State.

Karen Springer

Karen has worked for 30 years as a nurse practitioner at Fort Wayne Neurological Center. She was attracted to Ball State’s respected nursing program, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees over 16 years while she and her husband raised two sons.

“They had a respected program,” she said of the decision. “And Ball State was easy to work with. I liked the people who I met in the nursing department.”

The Springer’s sons, Josh and Austin, are now 31 and 25 respectively. Like his mother, Josh attended Ball State, graduating in 2010 with an architecture degree. He works as a project manager for Wiegand Construction in Fort Wayne. Austin graduated from Purdue University Fort Wayne with a bachelor’s degree in organization, leadership and supervision and is a human resources assistant for the Allen County Human Resources Department.

Based on her experience, Karen has advice for others who are working, raising a family, and pursuing an education all at once.

“Sometimes you just have to say, let’s focus on this one day,” she said.

Karen said she plans to continue taking advantage of training opportunities. Medicine changes too fast to rest, she said. Health care professionals must always be learning.

“I’ll never be done,” she said.