When 20-year airline pilot John Gijsen encounters new first officers during pre-flight crew meetings, he’s often asked the same question. “Hey, what’s shakin’?”
With a straight face, John answers “Well, as you can see, my hands!” Silence usually follows, and he quickly adds, “But don’t worry. I’m not a nervous pilot. I have essential tremor.”
John makes a point of educating his crew about ET, which he has had since childhood. He makes sure people understand ET is hereditary and doesn’t affect his ability to fly safely. “I try to stop anyone from drawing their own conclusions,” says John. “Even when I take check rides with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), I’m upfront before we even start the process.”
At this time in his career, John test flies new aircraft and trains pilots, but he still flies passenger flights six times a year. Because the FAA does not allow pilots to use drugs commonly prescribed for ET, and because he is subject to random drug testing as well as physicals every six months, John learned long ago that being upfront about his hand tremor is the best policy.
“Years ago, I tried to hide my hand tremor, but I don’t bother anymore,” says John. “I do get frustrated at times and wish it were not here, but I’ve learned to deal with it. And I’ve managed to be successful in spite of it.”
John has a good relationship with the FAA. “I deal with them every day. They know about my tremor, but they also realize I don’t let it affect my ability to fly an aircraft.”
John admits, though, that flying a plane today is not quite the same as it used to be. “Modern aircraft are highly computerized. In newer jets, we tend to manage the aircraft rather than fly it. This requires a great deal of choosing buttons and rotating selectors. I rest my hand on the panel before making the selection to help dampen the tremor.”
Learning ways to dampen worsening tremor has been something John has worked at since he was young and Inderal® had little effect. “For years my dad told me I could control the tremor if I just tried. He didn’t understand ET, so I can’t blame him.” John’s uncle and maternal grandfather had hand tremor. John says his mother “felt bad because it came from her side of the family.”
It never occurred to John that his tremor would keep him from doing anything he wanted to. “I’m very strong-willed. Telling me I can’t do something is simply a challenge for me to do it.” In fact, his hand tremor has affected his activities in only a few instances.
“I had thought about going into medicine, but I know surgery would have been a short career for me. Something about killing your patients being a bad thing. I also had to give up target shooting with a pistol. In my spare time, I work on cars, boats, motorcycles, and airplanes,” says John.
John, who lives with Lise, his wife of 17 years, and four-year-old daughter Ceilidh, in Hortonville, WI, used to work on cars with his best friend who also has ET.
“It was hilarious to watch us work on wiring! One person holding the wires, one person trying to solder them. It’s nearly impossible for two people with hand tremor to get on the same tremor frequency! I do wonder if the tremor will get bad enough I won’t be able to do my projects.”
John relies upon the IETF to keep him informed about research into a cure for ET. He hopes ET will one day “go the way of other epidemics” and be eradicated. In the meantime, he does his part to increase awareness about ET by educating the people with whom he flies and works.