Solving the riddle of Parkinson’s, one bowl at a time

Marg Meikle in 2011.

Marg Meikle in 2011.

Marg Meikle liked getting answers.

As CBC Radio’s “Answer Lady,” she researched random questions from listeners How much does your head weigh? What is ear wax? Why are bald men more attractive? – and relayed fact-filled responses from the country’s top experts on the nationally broadcast Gabereau Show.

Then she encountered a question that proved daunting, in more than one sense: What is the cause and cure of Parkinson’s disease?

The question was personal – in 1998, she was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder.

Upon learning that there was no known cause nor a cure, Meikle grew determined to help scientists find the answers. Thus was born Porridge for Parkinson’s, a string of oatmeal-laden fundraising events across North America.

When she passed away in December 2013, she left behind a ritual that became the most reliable source of funding for the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Institute, the foundation that supports UBC’s Parkinson’s research.

“Her contribution was so much more than money – she built a real grassroots community around Parkinson’s,” says Jon Stoessl, Director of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre at UBC, who also was Meikle’s neurologist, fan and friend. “Her house was packed with people who really cared about her. With enormous grace and vigour, she chose to better the lives of others. She captured the imagination of people in Canada and in other countries.”

Meikle and husband Noel MacDonald didn’t know their porridge fundraisers would prove so popular when they started them at their Kitsilano home in 2001, borrowing the idea from UnitedChurch fundraisers. But their homespun events spawned several others across Canada and two in the United States, becoming what Meikle jokingly described as a “bowl movement.”

Every dollar Meikle raised became three dollars through matching funds from the foundations she wooed, generating $1.6 million for UBC research.

“She could turn a bag of oats into $200,000,” says Dale Parker, Chair of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Institute. “It’s quite an achievement.”

Noel MacDonald and Marg Meikle at one of their Porridge for Parkinson's events. Photo by Dina Goldstein, courtesy of Canadian Living.

Noel MacDonald and Marg Meikle at one of their Porridge for Parkinson’s events. Photo by Dina Goldstein, courtesy of Canadian Living.

Their November 2013 event drew 270 loyal friends, acquaintances and newcomers attracted by Meikle’s very public battle – she talked about it with any media outlet that would listen. She also fought for improved Advanced Care Planning.

“You’ll never find another Marg,” Parker says.

Meikle energetically researched porridge, of course, and their home boasts a collection of Scottish wooden spurtles, long wooden rods that stir delicate oats without breaking them up.

“We saw donations go up significantly when we added single malt Scotch as a topping for the porridge,” MacDonald says.

MacDonald and the couple’s 16-year-old son Mac will continue hosting the breakfast, which now includes Mac’s add-on, “Pennies for Parkinson’s,” in which participants deposit coins in a large pail. He gets 300 to 400 pounds of coins – about $1,500 – per event.

With the donations Meikle and her family raised, UBC created the Marg Meikle Professorship in Parkinson’s Research, also known as the “Porridge Professorship,” now held by Silke Cresswell, an Assistant Professor of Neurology.

“Marg loved the search for knowledge,” MacDonald says. “That’s what her whole career was about – talking to people smarter than her and searching for answers. Working with the researchers at UBC was really special to her. Putting together that professorship and showing what a small community can do – that’s the legacy Marg wanted to leave behind.”

To support Parkinson’s research, please contact:

Fatima Hassam 
Associate Director of Development

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