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Play the Cards You’re Dealt

Mastering life means adapting for Tina Epstein

2020 has been a good year for Tina Epstein. In February, Tina and her husband, Leonard, became grandparents, and in June, she reached another milestone: Life Master.
In April 2019, Tina was put on hospice with Stage 5 Parkinson’s disease. “After nine months, I rallied to come off of hospice,” she said.
Even under hospice care, Tina continued to play regularly at the club and attend tournaments. “I passed 300 points, but still lacked the final 0.57 gold. The first online regional came; no cigar. Then, on the second day of the June 2020 regional, Stuart Litwin of Round Rock TX and I finished 9th overall/1st overall in Flight C in a 550-table game for an award of 16.68 gold/red points. I had not limped across the line, but had run full speed through the tape!”
Born in Madrid to a Moroccan mother and New Yorker father, Tina’s family moved from place to place before ending up in Dallas when she was a teen. There, while playing volleyball, she met Leonard Epstein. They married in 1986.
Leonard took up bridge in high school. “I’ve been playing long enough to have faced Oswald Jacoby,” he said. He quickly indoctrinated his new bride. Tina didn’t pick up but a few masterpoints before life got in the way in the form of their three children: Benjamin, Sarah and Sam.
“I absolutely believe I was put on this earth to have and nurture kids,” said Tina. “I’ve been a wife and mother first, but everything I do has my whole heart.”
Her first health challenge was rheumatoid arthritis, which caused severe pain in her hands. Tina later developed tremors and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, in 2010, after she deteriorated more in four months than most patients do in 10–15 years.
She works hard to adapt. “I do my best to be the best wife, mother, bubbe to my new 5-month-old perfect granddaughter, and bridge partner I can.”
In 2012, she had a deep brain stimulator – a device with wires running from a subcutaneous battery to electrodes in her brain – implanted to help control her tremors. She uses a feeding tube to eat. She can’t use one hand at all and has control of only a couple of fingers on the other. While the details may seem graphic (and there are more and worse symptoms), for Tina, they are an important part of her story.
Tina makes it her mission to educate her extended circle about the disease. Her Facebook posts describe what it’s like for a 62-year-old woman to live with Parkinson’s. The details are comprehensive and not for the faint of heart, but Tina doesn’t care. She explains what life is like for her so others will later understand if a family member or friend is also beset by the disease.
To further display what life with Parkinson’s looks like, Tina starred in a short film called “The Art of Adapting,” available on YouTube. In that movie, Leonard pauses her deep brain stimulator to show how Tina shakes uncontrollably without it.
The title of that piece is based on Tina’s biggest nonbridge/non-family passion: art.
“Most people don’t know that I’m actually a professional artist when I’m not playing bridge!” Tina said. She took up art over 30 years ago, first using clay, then branching out to other media. She now works mostly on canvas. Her art’s most distinctive feature is its bright, beautiful colors.
In the 2000s, her painting was often geometric, with many straight lines and sharp angles. Now, without the use of her dominant hand, and with no fine motor skills, it is more abstract. She applies the paint to the canvas straight from the tube and smears it on, or shakes it off the paintbrush.
Leonard said it’s her best work ever. “Her painting has more depth and emotion than it ever did, and her ability to put together the colors has only increased. It is clear that her gift is in her head, and that you don’t lose that with physical challenges. She has just had to adapt to continue to express her creativity.”
Her cognitive bridge ability isn’t affected, but physically playing the hand is difficult. Because the use of her hands is limited, even placing the cards in her card holder and pulling them out to play is hard.
“She can’t always be heard,” Leonard said, “so when she’s declarer, she sometimes motions to dummy as to which card to play.”
In Dallas, Tina and Leonard frequent the Bridge Academy of North Dallas, the club owned by Donna and Chris Compton. Tina said, “Donna and Chris Compton, and what I consider the most supportive BAND community, took pains to make sure my club visits were as smooth as possible.”
Tournament director Melody Euler, who knows Tina from sectionals and regionals both on land and at sea, said, “Tina is a picture of grace, always decked out to the nines, awesome hats and – more than that – an incredible attitude with a constant smile. Her card holder is bedazzled to match her personality. They both sparkle!”
Tina thought about retiring from bridge with 199.99 masterpoints. “My goal was to make it to 200 masterpoints, but it was getting way too difficult to go to the club.” It would regularly take her about two hours with the help of a caregiver.
“I made it to 199.99 points and found the humor in retiring, but my Life Master husband wouldn’t hear of it. So I hit my goal and prepared for the end.”
A challenge by her partner and cousin, Susan Ehrlich, inspired Tina’s push to Life Master.
“Although it may sound cliche, bridge is definitely a metaphor for my life,” Tina said. “Cards are dealt to you at random, and you must play them to the best of your ability. It is that play that determines how you fare. You do have choices.”