Diana spoke to Katie Moss, Editor of The Parkinson magazine in Spring 2007, telling her about her quilting and its therapeutic effects. Photography by Peter Dash.

Thorn Tree in a Whirlwind
Thorn Tree in a Whirlwind

Former art teacher Diana had big plans for her retirement – she and her husband would spend much of their time on their sailboat, travelling far and wide. This was something she was looking forward to immensely, so why was she displaying signs of stress, namely a shaking leg, she wondered.

In 1988, Diana was referred to a neurologist, who asked her simple questions, such as had her handwriting become smaller – this lead to a diagnosis of Parkinson's. "At first I was very gung ho about it all," Diana explains. "I felt that, as they’re doing lots of research, they’d probably have found a cure in ten years."

Les Perroquets
Les Perroquets

Diana was very open about her Parkinson's from the beginning, telling "anybody who would stand still long enough and listen". She was glad she knew what the matter was and saw it as something she would be able to control.

Despite her initial optimism, she began to realise that she would have to rethink her plans for the future: "We had several more holidays in the boat after this, but I recognised that my body strength was not what it was.. Although I was still comparatively young [53], I thought it would be difficult for my husband to cope with the boat and me." They made a big decision – they would sell the boat.

During the next couple of years, Diana felt quite depressed. She knew she wanted to embark on a creative project as a therapy for her Parkinson's but couldn't muster the emotional energy to take the first steps.

She eventually decided to join a local patchwork quilting group – embroidery had formed part of her course at art school, many years before, and she had taught fabric printing and surface design to her pupils as an art teacher.

To say Diana didn't look back is an understatement. She has exhibited her quilting designs around the world and has even won an award for 'services to quilting'.

Wreck
Wreck

Diana often becomes so engrossed in the process of designing and creating her projects that she finds she is able to work past her Parkinson's: "Choosing my fabrics takes my mind to a point where I'm excited about what I'm doing and even if I don't feel well, as far as the Parkinson's is concerned, I push myself past this, in order to put all of my energy into the design process."

It has also taught her to 'think big'. Diana had found it difficult to draw on a small scale, in the same way that Parkinson's had affected her handwriting. However, by using a large piece of paper – 3 feet wide or bigger – she finds she is able to use a sweeping motion, which enables her to develop her designs.

Diana gets much of the inspiration for her quilted wall hangings from the many places she has visited around the world. The fact that she is so well travelled is, in part, due to her Parkinson's. She explains that she's keen to get away as often as possible "because I don’t know how long I'm going to be able to do it, whereas I can do it now"

The Swamp
The Swamp

As well as receiving international acclaim for her quilting, Diana has also been recognised for her tireless efforts to reach and support other people with Parkinson's. Diana was invited to the House of Commons last year to accept a 'Local Heroes' Award, after being put forward, without her knowledge, by her local MP.

During the ten-year period in which Diana was Chair and Vice Chair, the Newport Branch of the Parkinson's Disease Society expanded from around 12 to 70 members. Diana talks fondly of the Christmas parties and coach trips she helps to organise, and of the opportunity they give for people with Parkinson's to have fun with people in a similar situation.

Another passion of Diana's is swimming. Having represented Wales at a competitive level in the past, she is still a regular at her local swimming pool, completing 12 to 15 lengths every weekday morning. She believes this is one of the keys to staying mobile. "I'm afraid to stop in case I just seize up," she admits.

Diana with her work in progress
Diana and work in progress

Due to a lot of hard work and commitment, Diana has enjoyed success in many areas of her life – and believes this is what has kept her going: "If you get some success at something then it makes you want even more – it's only human nature". Recognition of her achievements has also had a positive effect on Diana's confidence: "The diagnosis did knock my confidence terribly. I was fairly outgoing before – I still am – but I didn’t feel it for a while."

Having met countless people with Parkinson's through her local branch, and through personal experience, Diana knows how easy it can be, after being diagnosed, to stay at home and "hide away if the Parkinson's is a bit noticeable". But on her many travels, she has found that if people react to her Parkinson's at all, it is only to be sympathetic and supportive: "On one occasion somebody said, 'I hear you've been ill', and I said, 'no, no, I've not been ill – I've got Parkinson's'."

First published in The Parkinson - Spring 2007. Republished with kind permission of The Parkinson's Disease Society in support of their 40th Anniversary Appeal. Additional information supplied by Carol Stork, PDS Eastern England.

The Parkinson Disease Society 40th Anniversary Appeal

There are currently over 120,000 people living with the challenges of Parkinson's in the UK. A progressive neurological condition, Parkinson's disease is caused by the unexplained loss of nerve cells, vital in transmitting messages in the brain to control movements. This results in the most visible symptoms of the condition, slowness of movement, stiffness and tremor, but its effects are much more extensive, impacting on every aspect of a person's life. The physical symptoms hinder simple everyday tasks, and, very often, the ability to express oneself either through speech or gesture. Over time, people with Parkinson's can find it more and more difficult to sustain lifelong creative or sporting interests.

For one individual, however, Parkinson's disease in fact opened the door to an unexpected avenue of creative expression. The article reproduced here is from the "Parkinson" magazine last year, telling the story of Diana Brockway, whose Parkinson's disease led her into quilting, the therapeutic effect of which has been considerable.

Next year marks 40 years of the Parkinson's Disease Society providing much-needed support and advice to people like Diana, and the society would like to celebrate the occasion by taking a further step forward in our fight against the condition by raising £5 million towards research into Parkinson's disease. This research will cover all aspects of the condition, striving to achieve a better understanding of Parkinson's to help improve treatments in the shorter term and, ultimately, to find a cure.

There are many simple ways in which quilting and textile groups could help the society to reach this target. In 2006, Wych Quilting Group in Harlow, a small group of five ladies, made a lovely sampler single quilt in lavender and green which they raffled and raised £100.00. The local PDS branch was able to buy a pool table with the resulting donation to supplement the activities available at their popular Wednesday club.

If your group is planning to exhibit their work this year, perhaps they could consider using the occasion to promote the work of the PDS and to raise a little money through ticket sales and donations. The very popular "Party for Parkinson's" packs could provide your group with everything you would need to turn your Christmas or summer party into an enjoyable way of raising money to help people with Parkinson's.

There are many worthwhile causes to support and we understand that individuals must choose those that they feel a personal connection with. If you, or any of your fellow quilters, know of someone who is living, or has lived, with the challenges of Parkinson's, we hope that you will consider supporting the 40th Anniversary appeal and helping PDS to make a difference to the lives of so many people affected by the condition, now and in the future.

If you would like to get involved and help in this quest, then please contact the Parkinson's Disease Society on 020 9732 1328 or by email on events@parkinsons.org.uk for further information, quoting 'Popular Patchwork'. You can donate directly online at Parkinson's Disease Society - Donate.