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Going Public About Parkinson's

“You probably notice I have a tremor. So, if you don’t like my speech, go easy on the evaluation. I have Parkinson’s.”

Vito Cosmo Jr. ’84 is joking about the evaluations, but he’s not kidding about the Parkinson’s.

An expert in Pennsylvania state and local taxation, he is managing director in the Philadelphia office of Grant Thornton LLP, one of the world’s leading independent audit, tax and advisory firms. As a “solutions guy,” Cosmo does a lot of public speaking on the job – presenting ideas to clients and prospects, and teaching seminars on taxation law. He also writes several articles a year on state tax topics.

This can be tough for someone with Parkinson’s disease, which constricts physical movement and vocal flexibility. That’s to say nothing of the potential stigma of admitting to a neurological disorder in the workplace.

But Cosmo is as frank with his clients and audiences as he was with his employer when he “came out” about his Parkinson’s disease.

“They call me the Michael J. Fox of Philadelphia,” he says with a smile. And while Cosmo doesn’t have his own TV series, as Fox did, he has gone public about his condition and is in the media spotlight as an advocate for Parkinson’s in the workplace.

Trim and relaxed on a couch in the living room of his home in Fort Washington, Pa., Cosmo shows barely a tremble as he describes losing his sense of smell in 2002. Puzzled, but knowing there could be many causes, he just lived with it. Later, when his right hand began to tremble, his wife, Rosanne, would ask how many cups of coffee he’d had that day.

But the symptoms didn’t go away. Over time he developed others, including slowness of gait, balance problems, stiffness of limbs, an arm that didn’t swing when he walked, tiny handwriting and a constricted voice.

Finally, in August 2012, when Cosmo was 49, doctors made the diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is a slowly progressive neurodegenerative disorder first identified in England in 1817. While the cause remains unknown, the degeneration of cells in the mid-brain reduces production of dopamine, a chemical vital for brain function. It is difficult to diagnose and there is no cure, although drugs, diet and therapies can slow its progression.

Vit-NasdaqToday Parkinson’s affects some 1.6 million Americans – more than multiple sclerosis, leukemia and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) combined. About 50,000 new cases are diagnosed annually.

“I was glad to have a label for it,” Cosmo says. “It’s not a good disease, but it’s not a death sentence.”

Cosmo’s instinct was to share his diagnosis at work, knowing that being honest about a life-altering illness is not something many employers want to hear.

Although he wasn’t quite sure how it would be received, he says his first thought of keeping it secret lasted about 30 seconds. “I’m a very open person,” he says. He also realized that telling his employer was far better than the possibility of being labeled an alcoholic because of his symptoms.

It was the right move. Grant Thornton has been wonderfully supportive, Cosmo says, clearly valuing the expertise of their “solutions guy” and his deep knowledge of tax law more than his ability to handle a keyboard. “Public accounting is a kinder, gentler place,” Cosmo says. “The inventory of an accounting firm is its people.”

Cosmo can still keyboard, but it is a laborious process. Because his handwriting has degenerated, colleagues help by taking notes. When fatigue sets in, he needs to leave early, come in late or work at home. But these small accommodations make it possible for Cosmo to continue to do what he is best at. Grant Thornton has even supported local fundraising efforts for Parkinson’s.

“I’m selling more business than ever,” he says.

Despite the physical slowing down caused by Parkinson’s, Cosmo has stepped up his activity in other ways, embracing a mission to be an advocate for Parkinson’s awareness and education.

He is a member of the board of directors of the Parkinson Council, which raises funds for research, education, resources and services, aiming to improve the quality of life for patients, caregivers and families. Cosmo feels he adds to the organization because

“I am not just a board member. I am the board member with the illness.”

He has become a media spokesperson for Parkinson’s, doing radio and newspaper interviews. A highlight was seeing his picture appear seven stories high over Times Square on the NASDAQ jumbotron when he was invited to ring the bell to open trading in recognition of Parkinson’s Awareness Month last April.

He has also spearheaded fundraising efforts, including creating a team, the “Cosmo Toppers” (a nod to the character Cosmo

Topper on the ’50s sitcom “Topper”), which raised $7,500 at a recent Stamp Out Parkinson’s Walk.

Meanwhile, he fights Parkinson’s holistically with the help of his family and friends. Along with medication and a diet high in dopamine, Cosmo does regular exercise and yoga. Since Parkinson’s constricts both physical movement and voice, making everything smaller for patients, he also participates in BIG and LOUD therapy programs. The BIG program trains patients to make bigger movements and teaches the amount of effort required to produce normal movements in the real world and everyday activities. The LOUD program is designed to increase the loudness of one’s voice and improve speech clarity through repetitive tasks with varying complexity.

Rosanne Cosmo recalls that she had a panic attack the day they learned the diagnosis. However, she and their daughter, Sabrina, 16, consider life with Parkinson’s a family affair, and she says with pride, “My husband is inspirational.”

While Cosmo says that he may retire in the “next five or ten years,” right now he is very busy being both BIG and LOUD in his career and his advocacy. Citing the liberal arts focus of the college, he says, “Albright prepared me for my career and has helped me with Parkinson’s. I have a mind. I have skills that transcend the disease.”


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