It was quiet except for the breeze rolling through the pine trees in George C. McGough Nature Park, but Steve Dittbenner, who has lived with Parkinson's disease for most of his adult life, was not alone. In his wheelchair, he sat with Shay, a red-shouldered hawk that gripped firmly with her talons to his glove.
In a fast moment, children came out of the Narrows Environmental Education Center and darted behind the wheelchair, causing Shay to lose her balance. With all his might, Dittbenner held his arm steady, helping the bird regain her grip.
Once Shay settled, Dittbenner, 66, smiled. "Shay,'' he said. "Shay,'' he said again.
Less than a year ago, Dittbenner, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran was giving up on life. He was "lying in bed all day … not talking at all," said Lynn Dittbenner, his wife of 45 years. But his recent exposure to falconry, a hobby he enjoyed in the 1970s, has brought him a new spurt of excitement.
Today, seven months after getting her husband involved in the Avian Veterans Alliance Program at George C. McGough Nature Park, Lynn thinks he has found a new reason to live. Although the disease has robbed him of his ability to walk and causes his voice to tremble, a surge of energy comes to Steve when he visits the park.
On a recent Tuesday, Steve and Shay gazed at each other, then separately at the visitor nearby. With his voice quivering, Steve spoke softly. "I had a bird of prey,'' he whispered. "Chivas.''
Steve, whose Parkinson's was caused by chemical exposure during his years in the military, is a former falconer. While stationed in Idaho, in the early 1970s, he raised a ferruginous hawk. "The hawk's name was Chivas Regal. My husband raised it from when it was a fuzzy chick,'' his wife recalled.
When one of the Dittbenners' children, Neil, was visiting for Thanksgiving last year, Lynn contacted Patrick Bradley, who had established the AVA program at the Largo park about one year ago. She thought it would be a good time family outing. Bradley, who previously worked with raptors at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg, had come to McGough to use the park's collection of 18 rehabilitated birds of prey, including several species of hawks and owls, a kestrel and a bald eagle named Sarge, as therapy for veterans struggling with health issues, mostly posttraumatic stress disorder. "Think of biofeedback. In order to keep a bird calm, you have to be calm,'' Bradley explained.
Bradley first realized his affinity with raptors while working for the Canadian government in the late 1960s, monitoring bald eagles in the Saskatchewan wilderness. He, too, had been struggling with PTSD after serving in the Army during the Vietnam War. A doctor he had met at Walter Reed Medical Center helped him find the job. Over the years, he continued work with wildlife whenever he could. "I know in my mind what nature did for me personally, and I want to help others,'' he said.
Although Steve does not suffer from PTSD and would be the first Parkinson's patient to become involved with the AVA program, when his wife mentioned that he once had a hawk, Bradley encouraged the family to bring him to the park. "He had that experience already there with Chivas,'' Bradley explained. "That doesn't go away.''
The family took Dittbenner from his residence at Palms of Largo to the park by enlisting the help of DART, Pinellas County's transportation system for the disabled. Not long after his arrival, Bradley set one of his hawks on Dittbenner's arm. "I first put on Dakota, a red-tail hawk,'' Bradley said.
His son was immediately amazed. "Before that point, my dad was in a downward spiral. The disease takes so much out of a person,'' he said. "He became excited. I think he was anxious before he got there, but once he was there, he got so much energy.''
And Lynn was also thrilled. "I couldn't believe it," she said, "I watched him begin talking. It was incredible. It was loud enough for Patrick to hear him, in full sentences.''
Bradley decided to take it a step further. At the end of the first visit, he asked the family to plan on coming back. "I had a surprise for Steve. I wanted to do something since he was a veteran, to make him feel part of a community,'' he said.
The next day Bradley arranged for members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of veterans who provide motorcycle escorts, to escort Steve into the park. "One of the riders even gave him a flag. He told him that his father had Parkinson's, too. It was the coolest thing,'' recalled his wife.
"AVA has given my husband a reason to live," she said. "Now, we go to the park at least once a week, and when we are not going, he is asking me when we are going.''
Elizabeth Ostrom is a recreational therapist for Bay Pines VA Healthcare System who takes groups of veterans to McGough Nature Park several times a month for the program. Although she stressed she is not an expert on Parkinson's disease, she is not surprised to hear that Dittbenner has shown signs of improvement.
"I can tell you as a recreational therapist I have seen cases where people light up when they are out in the community somewhere,'' she said. "In my field, this stuff happens all the time. People are being empowered and motivated when they go into the community and do something they love.''
According to Greg Brown, Largo's parks superintendent, the city has received inquiries from around the country, people interested in how the AVA program works. "From day one, I thought the idea of using birds of prey in therapy just makes sense, and it's not just veterans but anyone with a focus problem or is in that realm. So many people can be helped with this, no doubt in my mind,'' Brown said. "Our birds of prey program started a few years ago, but it really jelled when Patrick Bradley came up to join and started AVA here."
For the Dittbenners, they recognize that Steve's battle with Parkinson's disease will continue. "There are good days and bad days, good weeks, bad weeks, but I am so grateful of everything AVA has done,'' his wife said.
Keeping his father's memories alive, his son said, like the memory of Chivas Regal front and center, has been key to Dittbenner's state of mind. "My dad's story is not uncommon,'' he said. "Things from the past can sometimes bring people back.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_vPBJC.