Catching up with Harry McMurtry

Harry’s 500 Miles

In 2005, at the age of 42, Harry McMurtry was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and just five years later, retired from a successful legal career. Harry was determined not to let the disease define him, and with improved mobility after successful DBS surgery, he decided to get involved. With his wife Deborah Bradley, he attended and organized numerous PD events that ultimately led to his fundraising initiative, 500 Miles for Parkinson’s. In 2016, after careful planning and training, Harry and his team (including fellow walker Sue Thompson) completed a remarkable walk from his home in New York City to his hometown of Toronto, allowing him to raise funds in both countries.

In 2015, Harry was the special guest speaker at our Porridge for Parkinson’s brunch and delivered an inspiring speech titled Things Can Be Better. We recently connected with him as he reflected on this incredible feat and offered some personal insight.

Why did you want to walk from New York City to Toronto? It’s something most people would never attempt.

In October of 2014, my wife, Deborah Bradley, and I attended a fundraising event in Toronto supporting The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF). The event was hosted by the actor Ryan Reynolds. An acquaintance of Ryan and my friend, Sarah Bobas, also attended the event. Sarah introduced Deborah and me to Ryan. The four of us discussed in vague but hopeful terms organizing a fundraising event for MJFF, possibly in New York City.

Later that month, while walking in Central Park, I conceived the idea of a fundraising walk from NYC to Toronto for Parkinson’s research. I pitched the concept to Sarah. With considerable input from her, 500 Miles for Parkinson’s was born. The motivation to walk to Toronto was a personal one; however, the attractiveness of the proposed route was that it engaged two major cities and two countries in one cause.

In March of 2014, my deep brain stimulation was altered. The reprograming dramatically improved my ability to walk. This was a crucial factor in settling on a walk as the cornerstone of a fundraiser. In addition to my revamped gait, there were other circumstances that permitted me to undertake this challenge: I had/have an extremely supportive wife; I was retired; and, most importantly, my Parkinson’s symptoms were not overly debilitating (in other words, I had a window of opportunity).

What other planning went into the initiative? Who was most involved and supportive?

With respect to training, I walked every day for 18 months. I trained intensely for the four months preceding the walk with the guidance of a trainer.

500 Miles evolved into three main events (the walk, an NYC kickoff party, and a Toronto celebration) and many smaller events. It required substantial planning. While 500 Miles was a full-time commitment for me, it would not have been possible without the work and dedication of over 100 volunteers in Canada and the US.

The most involved and supportive individuals were Deborah, Sarah and my closest friend, Ian Hull. We also had over a dozen committees with their chairs. Ian’s law firm played an enormous role. It was an expansive and time-intensive operation. Hopefully, the net benefit to Parkinson’s research of approximately $825,000 justified our efforts.

Are there any highlights that stand out?

There were many highlights: friends surprising us on the walk; our greeting upon entering Canada; meeting fellow ‘travellers’ (people with Parkinson’s) along the route; receiving a huge donation of water from a water bottling company on whose lawn we enjoyed a picnic; and walking up University Avenue in Toronto with a police escort!

Our arrival in Toronto was special. We were greeted by family and friends. We garnered a lot of media attention. We met the Mayor and thereafter the Premier. Wow! We felt like conquering heroes (conquering miles, that is, not people)! The walk was a 45-day escape from reality!

You have been a big supporter of Porridge for Parkinson’s. Do you have any advice for us with our events?

I do not feel qualified to offer advice. Having said that, I recommend that you continue doing what you are doing. If one is going to engage in event fundraising, which requires an enormous investment of time and energy, the event should be recurring.

Another point: Continue to focus on personal relationships or networks. With a cause like Parkinson’s disease, you have a lot of competition from bigger and more compelling causes. It’s hard to break through the ‘charitable noise.’ The key is to engage people with Parkinson’s or people with a personal connection to people with Parkinson’s. This is where you will receive the majority of your support.

Thank you, Harry. We hope to see you again at our next (in-person) event!

Supporters joining Harry and his 500 Miles team on University Avenue in Toronto, 2016.

Harry McMurtry, Things Can Be Better keynote at the Toronto Porridge for Parkinson’s in 2015.