29 March 2023

Tulip bulbs bring out the best in everyone

| John Thistleton
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A couple with a framed image of tulips

A woman from near Wangaratta who has never met the O’Connors buys tulips for a garden in honour of her late grandfather. She bought $400 worth this year and contacted a friend to give Gill and Michael a lovely print of tulips. Photo: John Thistleton.

Twelve years ago Michael O’Connor of Goulburn had a reprieve from the worst of his Parkinson’s disease. Diagnosed in 2002 he had days when he couldn’t dress himself or cut up his food, his wife Gill recalls. In 2010 a neurological intervention of implanting electrodes within Michael’s brain, known as deep brain stimulation, gave the O’Connors their lives back.

“We grabbed that chance with both hands and started doing things that we had never done before,” Gill said. Their goal was to raise enough money for a specialist Parkinson’s nurse.

Since then, they’ve trekked across Milford Track, New Zealand and 180 kilometres through France, Italy and Switzerland beneath Mount Blanc.

They have hosted ‘Shakin’ cocktail parties and sold hundreds of kilos of chocolates and thousands of tulip bulbs, cultivating extraordinary generosity in people. Their biggest leap forward came when the Goulburn Workers Club pledged $20,000 a year, making their Parkinson’s group the most successful in NSW.

Now they have their specialist nurse, Lauren Hogan. The Goulburn nurse makes a world of difference for Michael and the lives of 50 other people from Goulburn, Marulan, Taralga, Crookwell, Yass, Queanbeyan and Tarago with Parkinson’s.

“All our members love her,” Gill says. “She comes to our meetings, Yass and Crookwell’s meetings, she gets involved, she’s doing a great job and making life a whole lot better for people with PD,” she said.

Last year the O’Connors couldn’t resolve an issue with Michael’s replacement battery which powers his deep brain stimulation until Lauren intervened. After a short stay in hospital his improved health returned and he continues to amaze his neurologist.

“A lot of older people have Parkinson’s and that gives them a lot of confidence, to know somebody’s got their back,” Gill said.

“If you look at Michael now, chances are you might not even be able to tell he has Parkinson’s apart from the lack of facial expression, that’s probably the only thing,” Gill said.

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The O’Connors happily share their story to raise awareness and underline humanity’s best attributes.

Each March and April the Parkinson’s Support Group gathers at the O’Connors’ West Goulburn address coinciding with the arrival of thousands of tulip bulbs. The volunteers count, bag and tag the tulips ready for distribution throughout eastern Australia.

Selling at 15 bulbs for $25, their brisk turnover rewards the creative enterprise of Gill who came up with the idea of selling tulips, the international symbol of Parkinson’s. Online nurseries she had approached for a special deal on tulips said no, until she contacted Paul Roberts-Thompson who owns Tasmania’s Van Diemen Bulbs. He said yes.

“We had never met this man and we were extremely grateful because Goulburn’s a long way from Tasmania,” she said.

Last year Gill sold 2500 bulbs in 24 hours. “It went nuts, it was a nightmare,” she said. “I said to Paul, ‘Can I have more tulip bulbs?’ and he said, ‘If I scrape the floor, you can have another 1000’, and I said, ‘Can you scrape under the cupboards too and make it 2000?” Gill said.

This year the tulips are a little dearer to slow the tidal wave of eager buyers; nevertheless sales happen every few minutes with people calling. Annual sales have jumped from 500 to 5000.

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The O’Connors’ cocktail parties draw friends from Wangaratta, Wodonga, Melbourne and Wagga Wagga. They come for the party and return home with tulip bulb orders and become collection points for Victorians and people in the Riverina. Other bulbs are mailed to buyers.

Another annual fundraiser is selling Cadbury chocolate seconds. “We will pick up 60 kilos of chocolates and get our ‘Parky’ people around here on Thursday and we will bag all that up, just like we did with the 5000 tulips this year,” Gill said.

To enjoy the entertainment at this year’s Shakin’ Cocktail Party on 15 April at the Goulburn Workers Club click on this link.

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