Idaho Life: Facing his own fragility

Imagine pursuing a passion for decades only to have it slip away from you slowly because of a disease. Richard Herdegen is a local artist who is learning to let go of something that has brought him so much joy.

BOISE - The thing about glass is, as an artistic medium, it can be pretty fragile.

But when you take thousands upon thousands of tiny pieces and patch them together their strength can be showcased in 12-foot sculptures, like the one in the lobby of St. Luke's new hospital in Nampa. Just finished in January, the project took seven months, conceived and pieced together in Richard Herdegen's garage.

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"These pliers that we're using are really old," Richard explains. "I was using these for, like, 40 years but they're nice."

For decades Richard made a career as a software engineer.

"It was a good way to earn a living, let's put it that way," Richard says of his 22 years at Hewlett-Packard.

But he found a more expressive outlet in his 240 square-foot space that may have seen more of Richard over the years than his wife, Diane.

"I don't know what he would do all day if he couldn't do his art, " she says. "I mean, really, he literally is doing art 7, 8, 9 hours a day, 7 days a week."

He's been a self-taught glass man since the 70s starting with stained glass, and after a short stint in neon, Richard settled into mosaics.

"Yeah, I started before there were things like classes," Richard remembers.

The other thing about glass is, sometimes it's not as fragile as our own bodies. Seven years ago Richard was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological disorder first noticed by Diane.

"'Have you noticed your hand is shaking quite a bit?'" she asked Richard one night.

He was immediately prescribed medication but his tremors continued to get worse.

"Parkinson's disease is like living being encased in concrete, it's that bad, it's really quite terrible," says Dr. Stephen Asher, a neurologist and director of the Movement Disorder Program at St. Luke's.

Then came the procedure that changed his path. In 2014, Richard underwent deep brain stimulation surgery, attaching wires to the pea-sized part of the brain that controls his motor functions.

"The brain sees electricity just like dopamine," explains Dr. Asher. "So we can increase the amount of electricity in concert with the decline in the dopamine production that we see as a part of this disease."

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Dr. Asher says the electricity measures just fractions of a volt but it renders a powerful result.

"I'm sitting there shaking away and all of a sudden boink, my hand wasn't shaking," says Richard, describing the moment they adjusted his regulator.

Since then, Richard has been able to work with his glass pieces without so much as a shake.

"The first six years were real easy now it's getting harder," says Richard.

The thing about Parkinson's is it's not just the tremors. It can also attack your cognitive abilities.

"It's real hard, you know," says Richard. "When you can't do things that you used to do. I mean really simple things."

Richards likens it to a light being turned off mid-sentence and he forgets what he was saying.

"It's the creative side that you need in order to invent stuff, I don't have that anymore," laments Richard.

Which is why that last large mosaic mural he just finished will likely be his last. And eventually he will let it all go. But like the mosaics he creates there's still a use for flawed fragments, like passing knowledge to the next generation.

As for what's next for Richard and his not-so-idle hands, "I'm trying to learn the ukulele," he says with a laugh.

There's one more thing about glass. It can also help you see clearly.

"Because you need to have something that you enjoy and challenges you," Richard says. "And this has met that need for me."

You can see Richard's larger handy work on display in the lobby of the new Saint Luke's Hospital in Nampa and on the second floor of the Children's Specialty Center at St. Luke's in downtown Boise. He says he spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours putting those two pieces together. Both he did for free.