UW health care worker with Parkinson’s disease trains for ‘American Ninja Warrior’

When we chatted with Bryan Hill, 35, on an early February morning, his 8-month-old son Forrest was cooing in the background of their West Seattle home.

A full-time dad around the clock and a health care worker at UW Medical Center-Montlake by day, Hill had just returned from an intense weekend at Life Force Ninja, a Bellingham gym where he’s been training for months in preparation for a run on Season 14 of “American Ninja Warrior,” to be filmed in San Antonio from March 21-24.

Hill said he felt sore, which any hardworking athlete might admit.

But Hill’s body needs more recovery time because he’s living with Parkinson’s disease, which affected Hill’s life long before a 2018 diagnosis. His mom was diagnosed in her 20s with Young Onset Parkinson’s disease, which typically occurs in people under 50. Hill was diagnosed with YOPD at 31, two months before his May 2018 wedding.

Hill now lives day by day, and in three-to-four-hour windows. He describes his life in extreme dualities: Life when he’s fully on his meds, when his body is able to move freely, and life when they’ve not yet kicked in. One moment Hill may be struggling to walk or fully close a fist, and the next he’s soaring through the air on a complex ninja course.

“I love it,” Hill said. “It’s amazing to be living two lives.”

Hill and his wife, Julia Horner, made a deal to publicly disclose his YOPD diagnosis when Forrest was born, so their son wouldn’t have the burden of carrying around the secret like they had.

Hill went public with his diagnosis eight months ago, and he now finds himself on a national stage as his time on “American Ninja Warrior” approaches.

“It’s pretty surreal,” he said. “It’s been a wild roller coaster.”

Truly, Hill’s schedule is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Aside from intensive duties as a dad and aspiring ninja warrior — training in Bellingham, in the family garage that became a gym during the pandemic, or along the water at Alki Beach “if it’s nice out” — he’s also at UW Medical Center-Montlake 40 hours per week. After more than seven years as an intensive care unit rapid response nurse there, Hill recently switched to a role as a post-op heart transplant coordinator because the schedule aligns better with family life.

While Hill’s career has provided him with a great set of tools for managing his chronic illness — including pharmaceutical knowledge for his “ever-changing medication cocktails” — there’s no doubt that managing the disease has been exacerbated by the stress of the pandemic, and the trauma of repeatedly witnessing tragedy firsthand.

Andrew Najjar, an intensive care unit and STAT nurse — a lead nurse who provides emergency, ICU-level care to patients in any part of the hospital — at UW Montlake, has worked for about seven years with Hill, who he says is a daily inspiration.

“Bryan brings a unique personality to the hospital and the people he works with,” Najjar said. “He is able to brighten up a room with his humor or encourage and support his co-workers through genuine interactions. He is able to get patients and colleagues to open up and interact on a deeper level.”

Health care workers have always been close, but the pandemic bonded them together as family, Najjar said.

In the years prior to publicly sharing his medical status, Hill struggled with depression and an overwhelming sense of isolation.

“About a year into my diagnosis, I started mindfulness therapy and changed up my workout routine to HIIT-style training to slow down my PD’s progression,” he said. “Both of these things help tremendously in my fight against PD.”

When Hill eventually revealed his story on social media, he received an massive amount of love and support. “The response I received sparked a fire in me to give back to the PD community,” Hill said.

One day, while posting a workout photo on Instagram, Hill noticed and clicked the fundraiser button. Just 30 days later, he had raised more than $5,000 for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. This pushed Hill to continue working out and making videos to raise awareness for YOPD.

His posts caught the eye of Jimmy Choi — an endurance athlete, five-time “American Ninja Warrior” competitor and Parkinson’s advocate, who was diagnosed with YOPD in 2003 at age 27. “Jimmy’s honest and humble approach to speaking so publicly about his PD is something I admire,” Hill said.

While watching Hill from afar on Instagram, Choi decided to become a mentor, knowing that he personally was not returning to “American Ninja Warrior.”

“I wanted to make sure someone can keep the momentum going for raising awareness,” Choi said. “Bryan was one of the most dedicated people when it comes to using exercise as a treatment for Parkinson’s I have seen, and he was making many fitness moves that were the basis for a good competitor. That’s when I thought he has more than a fair chance to be selected to compete.”

Choi says his mentee and friend is just like him — a perfectionist.

“It’s really hard to get everything perfect with Parkinson’s, but we strive for it,” he said. “Very much like me, Bryan was willing to take advice, and drive or fly to the ends of the earth to get training time on the right equipment or with the right people.”

Choi’s biggest advice for Hill before the competition: “We say this all the time about having fun, but really he has to do everything in his power to reduce stress on a very stressful stage.”

Leading up to the San Antonio taping, Hill has focused on fine-tuning his balance and agility, since Parkinson’s patients can become unsteady on their feet. Other days he concentrates on weightlifting, explosive movement or ninja exercises, like the salmon ladder or shrinking steps.

Every other week, Hill goes to The Parkinson’s Fitness Project in Seattle, where he’s been working with physical therapist Kelsey Colpitts since July 2021. They’ve been trying to slow the disease’s progression by addressing posture, balance and respiration, and to improve his awareness of both sides of his body, reduce dyskinesia — involuntary muscle movements — and “allow him to do the things he loves in a balanced fashion,” Colpitts said.

“Hopefully, everything he has learned in the clinic will help him tackle each obstacle in the ‘ANW’ competitions with confidence,” she added.

Colpitts said she is in awe of how Hill has confronted Parkinson’s, and added that she is grateful for his willingness to share his journey with others.

“His passion for life will hopefully inspire not only individuals with PD, but people with other hardships and/or neurological disorders,” she said. “He is an unbelievably positive and resilient guy trying to push forward in a tough situation.”

Across a lifetime affected by PD, Hill has learned to embrace life’s peaks and valleys.

“It’s part of the human experience where you have highs and lows,” he said. “It’s about knowing and acknowledging that.”

By his own estimation, Hill remains positive about 85% of the time. On those “off” days? He sits with the emotions. “Thoughts of letting my family down, losing control of my body and wondering when this disease will take over everything,” he said. “By giving [those thoughts] that time and space, it makes everything smooth out.”

Hill will be thrilled if shedding light on his struggles helps just one person in a similar situation realize they don’t have to live in isolation or in fear of getting fired from a job due to their medical status. While he has this platform — on social media and soon on “American Ninja Warrior” — he hopes to connect with even more people. “Community is definitely important,” he said.

Regarding the transition from training on his own to the upcoming, nationally televised competition, Hill’s main concerns revolve around balance-based obstacles.

“But I’ve been training,” he said. “I’ll give it my best shot.”

Should Hill qualify on his first trial, he’ll head to Los Angeles for the show’s semifinals from April 8-11, and, if his run continues, on to the national finals May 14-17 in Las Vegas. Episode air dates will be announced at a later date.

When Hill’s episode airs, Najjar and his hospital colleagues will be cheering from Seattle. “Our entire unit and STAT team are rooting for him,” Najjar said, “and will be with him in spirit the whole way.”

Choi, the “American Ninja Warrior” veteran, will be tuned in, too.

“I think by sharing his journey and his story, others can see that there isn’t just one or two people who can live well despite Parkinson’s,” Choi said. “His smile and his candidness will reach and relate well with others on the same journey.”

At the end of the competition, though, what matters most to Hill will be waiting at his Alki home.

“My boy and my wife,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

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