Ken Nies Isn’t Letting Parkinson’s Disease Diminish His Lust for Life

Keep on moving.

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  • Written & photographed by
    Kat Monk

Come rain or shine, Manhattan Beach resident Ken Nies tends his garden for at least an hour every day. Ken was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago. Anyone who knows him will let you know that he still intends to live his life to the fullest.

At age 80, he spends his days gardening, watching his grandkids play sports and rooting on his favorite professional teams. You can find him almost daily at the Manhattan Beach Country Club playing pickle ball, tennis or golf.

Parkinson’s is a progressive, incurable disease marked by certain recognizable symptoms—including slow movement, stiffness in the limbs, uncontrollable shaking or tremors, lack of coordination and speaking difficulties. The symptoms manifest differently into a few stages, and everyone has a unique set of circumstances and symptoms. Essentially, each patient experiences Parkinson’s differently. Fortunately for Ken, he is right-handed and the disease impacts the left side of his body.

With great pride, Ken has mastered a recipe of success for his flower and vegetable gardens. The process starts with a seasonal system of germinating and growing seedlings under grow lights—fluorescent lights with a wavelength that plants need once they sprout. He cultivates his soil with earthworms and liquidated compost. Earthworms help increase the amount of air and water that gets into the soil. As they shred, mix and defecate, it turns the soil—helping the organic matter from the top mix in naturally.

The final product is a spectacular garden with a bevy of breathtaking ranunculus, roses and vegetables. It is where Ken sometimes takes the opportunity to partake in a cigar while listening to an audiobook.

This type of dedication is part of Ken’s DNA. At a very young age, he knew he would be a doctor one day. Not only was his dad a doctor but also his two older brothers. After medical school, he trained at the University of Southern California and began his medical career at the University of California, Los Angeles. Without hesitation he will tell you that if the two schools are competing, he cheers for the Bruins. Sorry, Trojans.

Ken opened the Arthritis Treatment Center in Torrance in 1982 with a couple other physicians. In 2008 he retired so he could travel throughout his golden years with his lovely partner of 28 years, Wanda Maureen Miller. Maureen was an English professor at El Camino for almost 30 years and wrote several textbooks. More recently she has released two books—Last Trip Home: A Story of an Arkansas Farm Girl and Madeleine: Last French Casquette Bride in New Orleans.

Ken and Maureen are quite the pickle ball team. Together they have traveled to many places including the Galapagos Islands, Cuba and a cruise through the Panama Canal.

Ken’s career allowed him a flexible schedule while raising two children, Corin and Tanya. One of Ken’s highlights was the ability to coach and watch his son play sports. Corin is proud of his dad and shares that, in addition to being a great doctor and father, he is also a compassionate person and a great coach.

On one occasion, when Corin was 12, Ken coached his Pioneer Little League baseball game at Polliwog Park. As Corin remembers it, the sun was setting just behind the baseball field when the catcher on his team took his face mask off as a runner was heading home. The ball was thrown to home plate, and the catcher got hit directly in the mouth by the ball.

“His teeth exploded all over home plate and in the surrounding dirt,” recalls Corin. “My dad didn’t hesitate to run out to home plate. Not only did he care for the catcher, but perhaps more importantly he ran out and collected all of my teammate’s teeth so that his teeth could be transported with him to the ER.”

It should not be surprising that Ken is not just a kindhearted doctor, but he is also a very competitive person. When Corin was a freshman at Mira Costa, he once played in a basketball game at Morningside High School where Ken was the only Mira Costa fan in attendance. “Despite being on another team’s home court and despite being the only fan on our side, he managed to yell at the referees enough to get our team a technical foul,” recalls Corin. “That was a special moment that only a fervently competitive person could have achieved.”

The people closest to Ken will tell you that he is talented at most everything he does. At first look you might think he is a bit frail, but don’t be fooled. Ken is a born athlete and could probably kick your butt in most sports—although he is modest to the core.

He is fully aware that his ability to keep this disease at bay requires staying active. He must be up and about each day so Parkinson’s does not get the upper hand over the control of his body. In the garden or on the court, Ken’s making the most of a rich and hard-earned life.

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