Touchberry

Tim Touchberry. Warren Peper/Provided

A coach is somebody who leads, motivates and teaches. They lead by their actions, motivate with their words and teach through experience. When they step aside, it is usually because they no longer feel they’re effective. That wasn’t what sidelined Tim Touchberry, but he’s found a way to remain in the game, though every day is a battle.

Touchberry was a multiple-sport star at Stall High School in the late '60s and played basketball at Baptist College, now known as Charleston Southern University. In 1972, he entered coaching. He eventually became Fort Dorchester High School’s director of athletics. He ended a 35-year career in the Charleston County school system in 2006. He still loved his coaches and the students, but something called Parkinson’s Disease was starting to effect his ability to enjoy life.

It was while walking in the school hallway one day that another coach commented that Touchberry’s left arm was not swinging as it usually did. From that seemingly innocent observation, the disease progressively impeded different movements in Touchberry’s body. He and his wife, Debby, married for 47 years, decided to fight this new opponent with every ounce of courage and understanding they could muster. That fight continues.

Waiting for the bus

Initially, a cocktail of medicine dealt with the symptoms. The trick was trying to stay ahead of the next discomfort or inconvenience. Touchberry referred to the moments spent wondering when the medicine would kick in as "waitin’ for the bus."

On those days, when Debby would ask, “How do you feel, Tim?” his reply would be, “I’m just waitin’ for the bus.”

Some doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina talked to the Touchberrys about a new treatment called deep brain stimulation, or DBS. This involved planting an electrode into the subcortical regions of the brain. Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disorder for which there is no cure, but DBS can make improvements, though every patient is different.

“It was a huge decision to have people drill holes in your head,” admits Debby Touchberry.

A wire about the width of a human hair is placed in the brain. The first surgery was in 2014. There are tweaks that are made during follow-up visits, and eventually a battery is added to periodically activate the electrode.

There were immediate improvements in Tim’s ability to move. He could go to the bathroom on his own. He was recertified to drive. He could turn over in bed. He was allowed to get back in his boat, but not by himself.

Some days are better than others. DBS affects the body’s movement, but not the cognitive areas.

“He’s still the best man I ever met,” says Debby Touchberry. “Even now, he never gets up from the table without thanking me for the meal.”

An empty bottle

Tim Touchberry’s greatest recreational passion is searching for old bottles. Though he now sometimes must carefully shuffle along the river beds, he still enjoys finding something of value that people long ago discarded. A couple of old coaching buddies accompany him on these ventures. The last time he tried to do it solo, “I fell so deep into some pluff mud that I thought I’d end up as crab bait.”

Parkinson’s disease has already claimed people Touchberry met after he was diagnosed. Unfortunately, some of those patients felt hopeless or possibly unwanted or empty — kind of like an old bottle.

“I didn’t know much about the disease until it hit me in the face,” says Touchberry. “I’m happy to still be here and I don’t know how much longer I’ve got, but I have too much to live for to give up.”

His doctors often ask him to speak with other patients who are afraid or concerned about the deep brain stimulation surgery. Touchberry spends time with those candidates, giving advice and telling them what to expect.

Sounds to me like the old coach is still coaching.

Reach Warren Peper at peperwarren@gmail.com.