By Toni Caushi
Toni Caushi is a multimedia journalist for the MetroWest Daily News.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tcaushi
WAYLAND — In 1991, a placard advertising the Broomstones Curling Club drew the attention of Kathy Holewa. She and her husband, Leo, were looking for something to do after moving from Andover to Hudson.
Despite knowing little about curling, the Holewas joined immediately after attending an open play session.
“The club was eclectic,” said Kathy Holewa, 63. “People of all different sizes, shapes, backgrounds played together, which was kind of unusual — and kind of neat.”
Holewa said she and her husband forged strong relationships with other club members — she calls it “a fraternity.” Thirty years later, those relationships are supporting the couple during the most difficult time of their lives.
In 2011, Leo was diagnosed at age 48 with Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that affects cognition and nervous motor functions, causing involuntary movement called “chorea.”
A year later, as the condition intensified, he stopped working as a principal software design engineer at EMC Corp., and even though he was able to curl for seven more years, he made the decision to eventually retire.
“(Leo) took himself off the ice in 2019 because he was concerned that he would fall and create a much more substantial brain injury," Kathy said.
Believed to be almost exclusively inherited, Huntington’s disease symptoms develop between the ages 35 and 44, and in most cases, it is fatal, according to the National Institute of Health. The condition is rare — fewer than 200,000 cases are diagnosed annually.
After hearing about the Holewas' passion for curling, Dr. Stephanie Bissonette, a neurologist at Boston Medical Center, organized a fundraiser in October 2019 called "Curling for a Cure."
"We don't, as of right now, have a cure for Huntington's disease,” said Bissonnette, vice president of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island chapter of the Huntington's Disease Association of America. “There's a lot of support that's needed as people progress through their disease to plan for their future and live the best quality of life that they can.”
At the curling fundraiser, the organization raised $8,600 through entrance fees and a silent auction, which put up gift baskets and concert tickets, according to Bissonnette.
“The event was so well received, and people had so much fun,” said Bissonnette, who was among those participating. “I’m pretty lousy at curling, but it’s extraordinarily fun and it's really important that these families who have many needs — including medical needs and social needs — receive these services.”
Originating in 16th century Scotland, curling is comparable to bocce except it's played on ice.
A player slides with a granite stone and gently releases it on an ice path that, with curling brooms, two other players sweep around to direct it and make it stop on a target at the end of the ice path, according to the World Curling Federation.
The opposing team does the same thing, and whoever can have their stones closer to the center of the target collects more points to win the game.
The Holewas didn’t just become proficient.
By the mid-2000s, they had attained national level curling for mixed doubles, with Leo reaching the men’s semifinals on a national level.
On March 5, another fundraiser will be held at Broomstones, and like the previous one, no experience is required, said Bissonnette.
The upcoming fundraiser is aiming to raise $11,000; so far, it has collected almost $1,500. To learn more, click here
Starting at 11:30 a.m. that day, participants will practice for 30 minutes under the instruction of more seasoned curlers, among them Kathy Holewa.
She now works as a senior director of quality assurance at Obsidian Therapeutics in Cambridge but makes time to curl and instruct curious newcomers.
Holewa hopes that such events will not only ease the burden that Huntington's poses for families, but also help researchers make strides in finding treatment or a cure.
In recognition of the condition, the Holewas had made a difficult decision in the early 1990s.
“We kind of opted not to have children, due to the fact that (Leo’s) mother had Huntington’s, and passed away from it,” said Kathy Holewa. “But (Leo) is in a really good shape. This far into a diagnosis he could be much more afflicted. Even though he has some chorea, and his memory, both the short term and long-term memory (is affected), his HD has seemed to affect more of his cognitive abilities than it has his physical.”
On March 5, Kathy Holewa hopes to surpass the last event’s donation total, but more importantly, raise awareness. She loves to do so through a sport that has meant so much to her and her husband.
“Curling is so much of a niche sport that it's always great and exciting,” said Holewa. “I look forward to introducing it to people who are curious or excited to try it and do it for a good cause.
“(Leo) has always said that it may not be something that can change his future, but it will hopefully change the future of HD, which is huge.”
Leo struggled to share some words during an interview earlier this month, but he was able to say what the fundraiser meant to him.
“It gives me some hope,” said Leo.
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