"Argo" subject now battling Parkinson's

As a career CIA officer, Antonio "Tony" Mendez was a master of disguise. A trained artist, he created counterfeit documents and transformed the looks of clandestine operatives around the world.

But after decades of covert missions — most notably, the 1980 rescue of six U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis that inspired the 2013 Oscar-winning film "Argo" — the Maryland resident is now doing battle publicly as he fights Parkinson's disease.


The neurological disorder affects movement and other functions. Symptoms include tremors, stiff limbs and shaky balance. As the condition progresses, a person may walk and talk more slowly, or slur words. Parkinson's disease is degenerative, typically worsening over time. There is no cure.

"Parkinson's has been described as a closed fist that doesn't let you know when it will strike," says Mendez, 74. "You have to stay on top of it."


Born in Nevada, Mendez was recruited in the 1960s by the CIA. For 25 years, he appeared to outsiders to be a bureaucrat with the U.S. military but actually worked undercover from East Asia to Moscow.

Today, he's becoming a nationally known Parkinson's activist, joining such celebrities as Michael J. Fox, Muhammad Ali and Linda Ronstadt who also have the disease. Mendez recently joined the patient council of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research in New York, and routinely travels the country to raise awareness.

About eight years ago, Mendez' hands began shaking. At the time, he was enjoying life — writing books about his spy exploits and painting in his studio on the family's 40-acre farm outside Frederick.

The first physician Mendez saw said the tremors were benign. A visit to a specialist in 2009 brought a diagnosis of Parkinson's. Unconvinced, Mendez sought a third opinion from the Johns Hopkins Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center in East Baltimore, which confirmed that he had the disease.

"Parkinson's is a multifaceted, complex disease," says Dr. Zoltan Mari, a neurologist and director of the Hopkins center. "Besides motor components, there's recognition that other symptoms exist, including depression, anxiety, sleep disruption, mood disorders and cognitive impairment."

Jonna Mendez, Tony's wife and also a former CIA officer, said her husband was "in denial" before the third diagnosis.

"It took him a while to get a grip on what Parkinson's means," she said.

Living with the disease has meant giving up golf and painting. Mendez no longer drives, and he relies upon his wife and adult children — sons Toby and Jesse and daughter Amanda — for help with basic tasks like dressing and eating.


Once known for his exuberant demeanor, Mendez' facial expressions can now appear blank, another sign of Parkinson's. He's easily fatigued and sometimes suffers debilitating pain. Yet the recipient of the CIA's Intelligence Star for Valor doesn't dwell on what he can't do. Relatives praise his quiet courage.

"He has such optimism and grace," says Toby Mendez, a sculptor who created the bronze statues of Orioles greats at Camden Yards. "He fights the disease but not the people around him."

Mendez says he doesn't want pity. "It's not so bad," he says.

According to the National Parkinson Foundation, at least 1 million people in the United States have the disease; some 50,000 new cases are diagnosed annually nationwide. Parkinson's is America's second most common neurodegenerative condition after Alzheimer's.

Dr. Michael S. Okun, medical director for the National Parkinson Foundation, notes that the disease is often age-related, typically developing after 60.

"As our life span increases, I believe we'll see an epidemic of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's," he says.


Between 5 percent and 10 percent of Parkinson's diagnoses are for people under 40.

"I believe we've undercounted the numbers of young people who have it," Okun adds.

Statistics show men are somewhat more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than women. Caucasians are slightly more at risk than African-Americans and Asians.

. Evidence also shows that genetics and certain environmental exposures, such as some pesticides or drinking well water, may be risk factors.

In 2009, Mendez participated in a clinical trial involving the impact of Creatine — a nutritional supplement often used by bodybuilders — on Parkinson's. Creatine and Coenzyme Q10, another popular supplement, both failed to slow the disease's progression in clinical trial testing.

Medications can help manage Parkinson's disease. Commonly prescribed drugs include carbidopa and levodopa; the latter works to control symptoms by increasing dopamine.


However, such drugs don't decelerate the underlying factors around Parkinson's, which is dopamine loss in the brain. And some medication can cause unwanted side effects, including dyskinesia, when the body twists from side to side.

Mendez had been taking carbidopa and levodopa and says the two meds held off multiple symptoms — tremors, gait, posture, frozen facial muscles — for several years. Recently, his doctors prescribed Rytary, an extended-release formulation of both drugs, newly approved by the FDA.

"It's had a profound positive effect on Tony," says Jonna Mendez, noting how it has diminished "freezing" — when people with Parkinson's stop abruptly in their tracks and have difficulty walking.

Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Baltimore VA Medical Center also found benefits from exercise, including using a treadmill, stretching and resistance training.

"Our study showed that low-intensity exercise on the treadmill, performed for 50 minutes three times a week, was the most beneficial in terms of helping participants improve their mobility," said Lisa Shulman, M.D., director of the University of Maryland Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center.

Another major treatment therapy that is helping some Parkinson's patients control their symptoms is deep brain stimulation (DBS). Developed in France in the 1980s, the FDA approved the procedure for Parkinson's disease in 2002.


"We use a surgically implanted device called a neurostimulator — similar to a heart pacemaker — to deliver electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement," says Dr. Ron Alterman, chief of neurosurgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the first hospital in New England to perform the surgery.

Last summer, Mendez underwent DBS surgery performed by Dr. Frederick Lenz, a professor of neurosurgery at Hopkins. The left side of the brain was operated upon first; surgery might be done on the right side later, but Mendez says the Rytary is working so well he might not need the procedure.

Medicare and private insurance cover a significant portion of Mendez' medical bills, including medication, which costs around $1,400 per month.

Speaking engagements — his wife helps him at times, acting as his surrogate — help pay some of the couple's expenses.

Along the way, they've met Michael J. Fox, President Barack Obama, former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush (who has vascular parkinsonism) and Ben Affleck, who played Mendez in "Argo."

"I liked Ben very much, and it felt mutual," says Mendez, who added that he loved the film. "Ben is articulate and thoughtful. …The movie was dedicated to my son Ian, who we lost to colon cancer. That was Ben's touch."


Despite his health problems, Mendez strives to live fully. During a recent "Wine and Spies" soiree held at the International Spy Museum in Washington (Tony and Jonna are founding board members), he greeted a stream of friends and admirers.

He struggled, at times. But mostly, what showed was his determination.

"Parkinson's is manageable," he says. "Get through each day with a positive attitude. That attitude is worth a lot."

Parkinson's resources

National Parkinson Foundation Inc. or 800-4PD-INFO. The foundation is having a walking/running event in Washington on June 7. For details, visit


The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research

Parkinson Foundation

Parkinson's Action Network


American Parkinson Disease Association

Parkinson's Disease Foundation

Muhammad Ali Parkinson Movement Disorders Center