In This Issue
Setting Wheels in Motion
Guelph grads join forces to mark 20th anniversary of Rick Hansen's epic journey
BY LORI BONA HUNT
|U of G graduates Laurie Arnott of the Human Rights and Equity Office, left, and Cyndy McLean of the Health and Performance Centre are heading the local organizing committee for the 2007 Wheels in Motion, along with another Guelph grad, Sandra Burton. Photo by Martin Schwalbe|
When Rick Hansen was wheeling his way around the world in 1987 to raise money and awareness for people with spinal cord injuries, Laurie Arnott, Sandra Burton and Cyndy McLean were teenagers, deeply involved in school, sports and friend-filled activities. They hardly knew who Hansen was, let alone understood anything about spinal cord injuries.
But two decades later, the women have come together to mark the 20th anniversary of Hansen's groundbreaking journey. The former Canadian Olympic wheelchair champion spent two years wheeling 40,000 kilometres through 34 countries.
Arnott, Burton and McLean are heading the organizing committee for Guelph's fourth annual Wheels in Motion June 10. The national fundraiser was started by Hansen, and this year's event will commemorate his journey.
The three women don't actually recall much about Hansen's epic trip. Arnott was only 12 at the time. Burton, who was 14, saw Hansen in person during the Ontario portion of his tour and felt inspired by him, but didn't fully comprehend the extent of his accomplishment. McLean recalls seeing footage of him on the news, but that was it.
“I knew who Rick Hansen was, but I didn't really appreciate the magnitude of what he was doing or understand the impact of a spinal cord injury,” says McLean. “I was 17 then and at such a self-centred point in my life.”
Not for an instant did the three teenagers imagine that they, too, would one day navigate life from a wheelchair.
Arnott was 18, in the midst of her first year at the University of Western Ontario, when she suddenly became very ill with a virus that attacked her spinal cord and left her with permanent nerve damage.
“I was in my residence room, and my arm started to go numb. Within an hour, I was totally paralyzed from the neck down.”
The virus that attacked her spinal cord remains unknown to this day.
“I kept asking the doctors: ‘What do you mean you don't know?' But there are millions of viruses out there.”
After a long recovery, she regained some feeling and function on her right side but is considered to have incomplete quadriplegia.
Burton was also a teenager, just a few months shy of her 18th birthday, when she suffered a spinal cord injury. She was playfully tossed into a backyard swimming pool and struck her head on the pool's concrete bottom. “It was a fluke,” says Burton, who has complete quadriplegia.
McLean was injured in 2003 in an equally bizarre incident. She was hiking on a peninsula in Michigan when both she and her dog fell more than 100 feet off a cliff. The former marathon runner was left with a broken back and severed spinal cord and is now paraplegic.
“If you look at the statistics for spinal cord injury, you'll find that 82 per cent of people injured are young men between the ages of 16 and 30,” says McLean. “The three of us don't really fit the stereotype, yet here we are, all around the same age, sitting around the table planning this event. We are very connected to each other and at similar points in our lives.”
There are other ties that bind them. The three now have friends in common, some of whom they met while in rehabilitation. All three are Guelph graduates, and both Arnott and McLean work on campus.
Arnott graduated from U of G with a history degree in 1999. She chose to come here rather than return to Western because Guelph's Centre for Students With Disabilities “was far and away the best.” She and Burton became friends and were later roommates. Arnott eventually returned to Western to attend law school, where she became interested in disability advocacy. But she came back to Guelph in 2003 to become a human rights consultant for U of G's Human Rights and Equity Office.
Burton graduated from Guelph with a child studies degree in 1998 and went on to earn a master's degree in speech language therapy. She is now a speech pathologist for preschoolers at KidsAbility in Waterloo.
McLean earned a master's degree in human biology from U of G in 1997 and is now director of the University's Health and Performance Centre. Following her injury in 2003, she was instrumental in bringing Wheels in Motion to Guelph in 2004.
The national event raises awareness and money for research and support for people living with spinal cord injury. People collect pledges either individually or as a team and then walk, run, wheel or bike a 2.5-kilometre course. Half of the net funds raised stay in the host community to support high-priority needs and services; the rest goes to fund national spinal cord research.
Last year, more than $30,000 was raised locally, with McLean and Arnott collecting more than $3,000 each. In addition, a team headed by McLean was the top fundraising group in Canada, bringing in more than $12,000.
“It's great to have something locally like this because individuals can apply for funding that they can use to improve their quality of life,” says Burton. “There are so many extraordinary costs associated with spinal cord injuries.”
Over a lifetime, those costs, including assistance services, equipment and health care, can be in the millions of dollars, she says.
This year's Wheels in Motion has a new component, a relay challenge that will have teams competing against one another to complete everyday tasks like grocery shopping and getting dressed from a wheelchair.
“The relay is a good way to have people try out different activities like getting breakfast and getting ready for work from a chair,” says Burton. “It helps raise awareness because people get a tiny idea of what challenges you face when you're in a wheelchair.”
McLean agrees. “People really cannot appreciate something as dramatic as being in a wheelchair unless they sit down in one and try to manipulate through pretty common tasks.”
For information about registering for Wheels in Motion or volunteering at the event, call McLean at Ext. 53319.