Shari Finsilver dancing bolero in her first national Fred Astaire competition with teacher and partner Mykhailo Annienkov in 2019
Shari Finsilver dancing bolero in her first national Fred Astaire competition with teacher and partner Mykhailo Annienkov in 2019. (Courtesy of JVS Human Services)

Shari Finsilver is this year’s Honorary Chair and keynote speaker at the Nov. 11 event, invited because of the dedication she has shown in advocating for fellow ET sufferers, and for the courage she has shown in reclaiming her life.

When Shari Finsilver was 19 years old, she was eating a holiday dinner with her family when her spoon flew out of her hand, landing across the room. Her mom was horrified. “She really thought I had Parkinson’s disease and rushed me to a neurologist,” explains Finsilver. 

As a young girl, Finsilver had become adept at hiding her Essential Tremor (ET), a condition which is believed to affect 5% of the population, and which varies widely in severity. Some people have a tremor in their hands and arms, others might have it in their head or other body parts.

Finsilver had first noticed the condition when she started art classes in middle school: Unlike other children, she was incapable of drawing a straight line. As she got older, the Orchard Lake resident became an expert at making adaptations to normal activities most of us take for granted. “In high school I learned to put paper on a clipboard and balance the board on the edge of a desk and write at an angle,” she explains. “I mostly ate sandwiches when I was out so I could balance my elbows on the table, and I’d never eat soup. I used a straw for drinks. Like many sufferers, I was very good at working out how to disguise my symptoms.”

Finsilver’s remarkable story, which includes deep brain stimulation surgery, will be shared at the 13th Annual JVS Human Services Trade Secrets event, which raises money for Women to Work, a program which has been changing women’s lives since the 1980s by providing important skills to women needing immediate employment. Finsilver is this year’s Honorary Chair and keynote speaker at the Nov. 11 event, invited because of the dedication she has shown in advocating for fellow ET sufferers, and for the courage she has shown in reclaiming her life. 

Paul Blatt, CEO of JVS Human Services, described Finsilver as a brave and inspiring woman. “So many of the women utilizing Women to Work have faced incredibly tough circumstances, but their strength and drive allowed them to move forward and reinvent their lives. Helping remove barriers to work and providing access to necessary trainings for this community is our commitment and our honor at JVS,” Blatt said. 

“Shari has used her own life circumstances to overcome obstacles and be a voice to help others do the same. This passion embodies the mission of Women to Work.”

Shari Finsilver recovering after surgery with friend Linda Schmier, son Brett Finsilver and daughter Amy Ben-Ezra
Shari Finsilver recovering after surgery with friend Linda Schmier, son Brett Finsilver and daughter Amy Ben-Ezra
A Brave Journey

Essential Tremor often runs in families. In Finsilver’s case, her father’s aunt had a severe tremor, her father a less severe one. “My father used to say his tremor was something from the war,” says Finsilver, whose own son also has a mild tremor.

At the age of 19, after the spoon incident, the neurologist diagnosed Finsilver quickly. “That was actually unusual as most patients have to see many doctors before they get an answer to what is going on, but he immediately knew it was Essential Tremor,” explained Finsilver. She was given the drug Librium to help manage her symptoms, but the drug did little to help so she stopped taking it.

Finsilver married Stanley, now her husband of 50 years, and the couple had two children, Brett and Amy. “My husband and kids were fantastic, doing everything they could to help me, but it was a struggle,” she says. When the kids were babies, feeding them with a spoon was difficult. As the children got older there were other challenges. “My daughter was a dancer and if she was in a dance recital I could never do her make up,” explains Finsilver, a member of Temple Israel.

As her life progressed so, unfortunately, did Finsilver’s tremors. While ET was originally confined to her arms and hands, by her 40s, essential tremor was now affecting her head and voice. 

In 1996, a TV program about Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) being offered to patients at University of Kansas Medical Center aired, and the surgery offered Finsilver hope. She didn’t hesitate. Then 46, she got on a plane to visit the surgeon in Kansas City, who informed her that help was actually closer to home. Dr. Peter LeWitt, a neurologist in Michigan, was working with a neurosurgeon recruited to start a similar DBS program at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. 

In 1999, Finsilver faced the daunting prospect of having the surgery performed while she was awake, so that the surgeon knew where to place the electrodes for the stimulator. Amazingly, she remained calm, choosing to look at the procedure as if she was taking part in a science experiment, which in some ways she was, as during surgery she was asked to follow commands like bring a cup back and forth to her lips to see if the surgeons were in the right part of the thalamus. For her family and friends, it was a different story. “They were all basket cases,” she admits.

Shari Finsilver making her acceptance award speech for IETF’s Spirit of Hope Award in 2010.
Shari Finsilver making her acceptance award speech for IETF’s Spirit of Hope Award in 2010.

Finsilver credits a book called Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster: A Guide for Mind-Body Techniques by Peggy Huddleston, for helping her both prepare and recover from DBS. “It was a relaxation visualization method, and I practiced it for two and a half months, twice a day,” Shari said. The premise is that if your stress levels are decreased there are better surgical outcomes,” she explains. On occasion, she even called the author directly for advice. 

In addition, prior to her surgery, the International Essential Tremor Foundation (IETF) put her in touch with a 29-year-old farmer in Iowa who had undergone the surgery and who answered her questions. The surgery was successful, with Finsilver seeing noticeable improvement in her symptoms. She was able to resume many more activities, even taking up ballroom dancing and becoming so skilled that she danced 13 styles of ballroom dance, including bolero, fox trot, rumba and salsa, in her first National Fred Astaire Competition in Orlando in 2019. 

After her life-changing surgery, Finsilver became determined to offer other sufferers the same support that she received from the Iowa farmer and started the first International Essential Tremor Foundation (IETF) support group for Michigan patients. 

“The group became very successful, with 300 members in Michigan, so I was then invited to join the board of the IETF and eventually became the president,” explains Finsilver, now 71, who currently has the role of vice president. 

She has received recognition for her work, being awarded the Spirit of Hope Award by the IETF in 2011, appearing on the front cover of the organization’s magazine. 

Now she is being recognized by JVS Human Services at their Trade Secrets event, and says she feels a kinship with the women who have reinvented their lives by taking part in Women to Work. “Although my circumstances have been different, I do understand how many women have faced challenges and worked hard to overcome them. For me, my life took a dramatic turn after brain surgery, and I have worked hard to pay it forward since then,” she said.  

Details:

This year’s Trade Secrets event will be in hybrid form, emceed by Fox 2’s Amy Lange, and offering options of a limited in-person evening dinner Nov. 11 at Detroit Marriott Troy starting at 6.30 p.m. with only six people per table, or an online streamed version of the event, starting at 7.30 p.m. 

Online attendees will receive a personalized box of snacks plus a small bottle of champagne and party favors. For those attending in person, there will be a sticker system in place so individuals who want to maintain a social distance will feel at ease. 

Whether in-person or attending virtually, the event offers the opportunity to purchase raffle tickets with outstanding prizes including a $2,500 Somerset Collection gift certificate, $1,500-worth of skinnytees apparel and an $800-value phone consultation with acclaimed spiritual medium Rebecca Rosen, along with a signed copy of her book. 

To date, the 2021 Trade Secrets has raised more than $232,000 through sponsorship and ticket sales. 

Presenting sponsors are Connie Holzer from Tom Holzer Ford, and Shari and Stanley Finsilver; Platinum Sponsors are Artichoke Garlic Foundation and DeRoy Testamentary Foundation; Diamond Sponsors are Moscow Family Fund and skinnytees; and the Emerald Sponsor is Huntington Bank. 

For information on sponsorship opportunities and tickets, which start at $150 per person, email Reisa Shanaman at rshanaman@jvshumanservices.org or call (248) 233-4213. 

Information about Women to Work: 

JVS Human Services’ Women to Work program began more than 30 years ago when it was called Displaced Homemakers. Then funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the aim was to help women whose life circumstances had changed through events like divorce, bereavement or financial disruption. Since that time, more than 2,000 women have been through the program, finding a new direction for their working lives. After intensive assessment, testing and job search training, these women emerge with renewed self-confidence, market-ready job skills and an action plan. Upon completion of the program, 85% of the program’s participants find employment or enroll in further training.

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