A Co. Cork farmer with Parkinson’s disease is upbeat about living with the fastest-growing neurological disease worldwide, despite having to change from suckler farming to a calf-to-beef enterprise because of the condition.

“Before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease I was a suckler farmer but due to the physical demands of suckling, eight years after diagnosis I reluctantly switched to a calf-to-beef enterprise on my 50ac holding, located at Riverstick, between Cork Airport and Kinsale in south Cork,” said Ted Horgan.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominantly dopamine producing neurons in a specific area of the brain, the substantia nigra. The cause remains largely unknown.

“I was diagnosed in July 2005, five days after my 40th birthday party which was also a celebration of my son’s christening,” Ted said.

Diagnosing Parkinson’s disease

“My GP noticed that I was displaying symptoms of Parkinson’s when I took my newborn son for his three-week checkup, but left it to a neurologist to confirm the diagnosis,” Ted explained.

“At the time there was no test for Parkinson’s and neurologists depended on physical symptoms to make a decision. A DAT scan is now commonly used to confirm diagnosis,” he said.

Prior to diagnosis, Ted was employed as an agricultural consultant with FDC Group and he also had a popular weekly column in the Irish Examiner farming supplement. His farming life had to change as his symptoms worsened.

“You can’t tell a cow that is calving to hold on until your Parkinson’s meds [medication] are working. I remember one cold January morning, maybe six years after diagnosis, I was trying to get a newborn calf to suck. The calf was shivering, the cow was shivering and I was shivering.

“I realised at that moment that I would have to sell my suckler herd, but I vowed to keep going as long as possible. The last calf registered in my herd was born in June 2018, 13 years after I was diagnosed.

“While much progress has been made in understanding the causes of Parkinson’s disease, no two people have exactly the same symptoms.

“Some studies have indicated that there is a higher incidence among farmers but pesticides could be just one of the contributing factor,” Ted said.

While a tremor is the typical symptom associated with Parkinson’s, others can include: urinary problems; stiffness of the limbs and trunk; slowed movement; and speech and writing changes.

Treating the disease with medication

“Although the medication for Parkinson’s can mask the symptoms in the early years, to such an extent that people remain unaware of a person’s condition, it is a progressive degenerative condition and requires an increasing level of medication as the years go by.

“In my own case, I now need medication to get out of bed in the morning – but at least I can get out of bed.

“A positive mental attitude is absolutely essential to cope with Parkinson’s and indeed to cope with a pandemic. Covid-19 has allowed my son – 16 next month – whose lifespan will always be a measure of the length of my Parkinson’s journey, to rear a shed full of calves this spring and to explore farming as a possible part-time career. The wheel of life is always turning.”

Living with the disease

Ted joined Cork Parkinson’s Association in 2008 and served as secretary from 2010 to 2013, when he became chairperson.

According to the Michael J. Fox organisation, about 10-20% of people with Parkinson’s experience symptoms before the age of 50.

“Increasing public awareness of Parkinson’s has resulted in a higher level of diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s,” said the dad of two.

Ted considers himself to be living with Parkinson’s rather than suffering from it. He aims to be a voice for those members who are more compromised than himself.

His original aim to develop the Cork Parkinson’s Association into locally-integrated support groups that are sustainable, is well underway and he is confident that the association will continue to provide a service to people with Parkinson’s and their families well into the future.

Ted is hopeful that a cure for Parkinson’s is on the horizon. He views the Cork association website as an essential tool for keeping members informed, and connecting them through their local groups with the broader ‘people with Parkinson’s’ community.

Meanwhile, Parkinson’s Awareness Week is running until April 11. As part of the week, a virtual conference is being held on Saturday, April 10 from 2:00p.m to 5:00pm.

Dr. Suzanne Timmons, School of Medicine, UCC, will present initial findings from her mapping Parkinson’s Disease project.