Life is a Highway: The Driving Adventures of Carol and Lulu

Carol Patterson in the driver seat of her car, Lulu
Carol Patterson in the driver seat of her cherry-red 1953 MGTD, Lulu.

For many, driving represents personal freedom, control, and independence. Retaining the ability to drive is a significant concern of many people newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but many continue to drive safely long after diagnosis. For Carol Patterson, driving and motorsports are passions she still enjoys, despite living with Parkinson’s for about 35 years and being a cancer survivor. 

Carol has always embraced challenge and adventure. She was Canada’s first camerawoman (after a few years as an English teacher) and a producer of car and motorsport-related films. Carol and her husband Lawrence have made a broadcast career out of this exciting world. Carol has become very knowledgeable about cars along the way. When you’ve experienced the thrills of LeMans, interviewed Paul Newman at Mosport, and filmed at races from Sebring to Indy, it gets under your skin.

Carol struggled initially with her diagnosis, but she gained control over her Parkinson’s symptoms through exercise and rigid adherence to her medication schedule.

“One of the hardest things would be to lose your right to drive. That certainly motivates me to take my medicines on time, even though I have to take so many I’m forced to stay really organized.”

She decided to “go after some of my dreams while I still can,” acquiring Lulu, a cherry-red MGTD exactly like the one she’d owned in her twenties. With the help of a great mechanic, she was off. Carol enjoys the level of concentration that driving an authentic vintage car like Lulu demands.

“I drive only in perfect weather and with the soft top down. My short excursions seem long and glorious. I feel renewed, having fulfilled my dream.” Having mastered Lulu’s classic clutch and (non-power) steering, Carol relishes her excursions on Collingwood, Ontario’s country roads.

When Carol’s production company got the contract to again produce the legendary annual road rally, Targa Newfoundland, another dream presented itself. The company had produced and directed the Targa television specials for many years— they knew the roads and “wonderful Newfoundlanders” well.

Carol Patterson driving Lulu at the Targa Newfoundland road rally.

“Then, the wild idea came to me: why not enter with Lulu? Lawrence could certainly produce the show. I could drive in the relaxed, ‘fun’ category with my mechanic, Lou, and my brave friend Carolyn (Lou’s wife), as my navigator.”

The fact that Lulu’s four-cylinder engine tops out at only 80 km/h didn’t deter Carol – she entered the rally and qualified. The race took place over five days of a dozen spread out closed-racing stages between five and 20 kilometres each.

“Every tiny fishing village and busy town seems a long way to reach in Newfoundland, but oh-so-worth-it. Volunteers had blocked off the roads so we could drive as fast as we dared and in whichever lane we chose. The scenery was stunning. It was hard to keep eyes on the road. The other Targa drivers and officials were pretty patient with us driving the slowest, oldest car. We got lots of thumbs-up even as we heard rumours of bets against us finishing even the first day!”

The biggest challenge for Carol was ensuring that she took her meds on time.

“For me, it’s now essential to take them every 2.5 hours on the dot. If I do, the levodopa beautifully controls my tremors and energy. I had been a bit worried that the daily stress of racing would worsen my health, but it seemed to have the opposite effect – we were running on adrenaline and grins. We had to be up and driving early, but Parkinson’s already had me used to that!”

At the end of the last day of the competition, after 1,600 kilometres, many adventures, and with only the final 5 kilometres stage remaining, Lulu refused to start. Her support vehicle was not nearby, but other competitors’ mechanics came to help. They eventually got the cranky 68-year-old engine started, in what she describes as “the true spirit of Targa.” It was too late to cross the finish line, so the week-long quest ended in a DNF (Did Not Finish).

“It was very disappointing, of course, but a few days later, we received finisher medals as a lovely surprise from a generous pair of Newfoundland women who had earned another set previously.”

Carol is often asked to speak to individuals newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“Often, they are afraid, and sometimes they’re just depressed. And I tell them about some of my car adventures and how I’ve been diagnosed for 10 years after the first symptoms appeared 35 years ago. I relate how many pills I have to take and how carefully I have to control everything. But the point is, I try to find exciting things to do. You can still have fun. You must consider that, however ironic, this is an opportunity to find out what you really enjoy in life and to do it as much as possible. Whatever it is – get out and do that bucket list thing you’ve been thinking about. A phrase I use a lot is ‘morale is good medicine too.'”

Carol’s most recent bucket list experience has been to renew her acquaintance with the cello, an instrument she played as a young person and was sorry she gave up. She is resolutely upbeat in her mindset.

“Hope and trust in the future are what keeps us Parkinson’s people going. No time to worry or be depressed. A ‘cure’ could come at any time, or your symptoms might not worsen. Who knows? Meanwhile, adventures await!”

At some point after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and before your symptoms become too advanced, consider having your driving skills assessed, as they relate to natural aging and your Parkinson’s symptoms. This simple Driving Skills assessment is one example.

If you’d like to read more about Carol’s Newfoundland adventure and see more pictures of Lulu, you can read her article.

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