Our Unique Story
Facing Life - Head On
They say you're only given as much hardship in life as you can handle. I wonder... over the years, it seems like my wife Janet Graham and I have been given our share and then some - just for good measure.
I was born and raised in Kirkland Lake, Ontario and the first 15 years of my life were packed with adventures, achievements and disappointments fit for the pages of Reader's Digest and the National Enquirer. I was considered the 'class clown' and many teachers openly told me I'd never amount to much. They were wrong. The thing is, if you are told things like that often enough, you tend to start to believe it. Fortunately, I was born with a stubbornness that has proven invaluable my entire life. Although I may not have been academically strong, I made up for it athletically. By age 15, I was scouted in both football and hockey and had a great shot at making a career in one of them. I had also set two Junior Olympic World records in swimming and was to attend the Olympics trials for the 1976 games in Montreal.
On October 9, 1975, all my hopes for athletic glory came crashing down after I mistimed a tackle during a high school football game severely damaging my spinal cord. One brief moment in time turned my life 180 degrees and I have been a quadriplegic now for almost 38 years. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it means I am totally paralyzed from the neck down and use a head-controlled electric wheelchair for mobility. I use a stick held in my teeth to write/type. Otherwise, I am completely dependent on others for every physical need. As you can imagine, this was a difficult adjustment for someone so physically active and mentally stubborn. But I was never a quitter, so life goes on.
After close to two full years in hospitals and a rehabilitation centre, I went back to high school in Kirkland Lake. It didn't take long for me to realize that I had no future in the harsh Northern Ontario mining town. Against the advice of my guidance counsellor who still saw me as the 'class clown', I applied to Carleton University in Ottawa and was accepted. I moved to Ottawa in 1979 and have been living in the area since.
In my first year of Criminology, I learned that my father had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was only 40 years old, and I took it hard. My dad was invincible, or so I thought. He died in 1981. By then, I had switched schools and was taking Social Work at Algonquin College, but the death of my father haunted me and I dropped out of school with two months left.
I had a few good part-time jobs with Ottawa City Hall, the March of Dimes, External Affairs and as an accessibility consultant at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. The Civic Hospital job changed my life forever because that's where I met Janet. Since my accident, I believed that no one would ever love me, let alone want to marry me, but after my second time seeing Janet, I boldly proclaimed to my coworkers that "I was going to marry her." We were married in 1984 and have been together for over 32 years.
I worked for four years at Transport Canada during which time I received my Human Resources Planning certification and returned to Algonquin part-time, completing my Social Service Worker diploma. In my third year at Transport Canada I began to notice a rapid decline in strength accompanied by a severe and constant pain that radiated down the length of my spinal column. After many tests and physical examinations, an MRI discovered a cyst (post-traumatic syringomyelia) in my spinal cord. Surgery was the only method of removing the cyst. In March 1986, I underwent surgery to drain the cyst. Unfortunately, I lost all mobility (I could use my arms) and became 100% dependent on people for literally everything physical. This was worse than my initial injury for a few reasons; I knew exactly what to expect and I was newly married. It was very hard on us both.
After a year of intensive rehabilitation therapy it became clear that I would never regain my mobility. It was time to move on. I resigned from Transport Canada and took a job in my field as a Regional Services Coordinator with the Canadian Paraplegic Association. It was an awesome job, but I took a 50% drop in salary in exchange for job satisfaction, but it was worth it.
Around this time, Janet began to experience severe abdominal pain. This went on for a couple of years, but in spite of undergoing several examinations and tests, nothing was found. The pain remained and we made one last effort to discover its source by meeting with a specialist. She decided that it was cysts on Janet's ovaries and scheduled surgery to remove them. Early in 1990, I sat in the waiting room with Janet's mother anxiously awaiting her surgery to be over. When the doctor approached us I was fully expecting her to tell us that the surgery was a success and that Janet would be out soon. Nothing could have prepared us for what she said. The doctor informed me and Janet's mother that she discovered ovarian cancer and had to remove everything in order to save her life. There really was no other option as the cancer was too far advanced. Janet was only 30 years old. Some women are just destined to be mothers and Janet was one of those people who desperately wanted to be one. Any hope of having biological children ended that day.
It would take several years of intense therapy and healing before Janet would be able to adjust to this devastating loss. Approximately 5 years after the surgery, we began discussing our options for having children. We briefly explored the possibility of using a surrogate, but that just seemed so complicated, and there really was no guarantee that I would be able to father a child anyway. The most reasonable and logical option was to go the route of adoption through the Children's Aid Society. We spent four long, grueling and fully invasive years going through the process of trying to convince the 'powers that be' that we 'deserved' the right to adopt children. It was a totally humiliating and heart-wrenching process that left a bad taste in our mouth regarding the entire CAS adoption process.
Although we were not certain whether the process would ever end with us being successful at adopting children, we decided to buy some property and build a house - just in case. I had been working with the Canadian Paraplegic Association or just over four years and I was also providing consulting services to Parks Canada. I really wanted to get my honors degree in social work and I approached the CPA with several options that would allow me to continue to work while attending school. All of my proposals were rejected, so I regretfully resigned from my position and took a job as a Disabilities Counselor at Algonquin College Centre for Students with Disabilities.
After four long years we were about to give up our dream of having a family, when as fate would have it, we got a phone call. We were quite open to adopting children of different ages and ethnicities, and therefore the worker was convinced that we were a perfect match for these two children. They had biological brothers who needed a home together. The oldest was four and his younger brother was 13 months old. We quickly arranged to go see them and it was absolutely love at first sight. We welcomed Jason and Jacob to our family and February 1995.
We had a new home and quickly became an instant family of four. When the boys first arrived I had enrolled at the University of Ottawa in the Bachelor of Education program. After nine months I successfully completed the course with a 9.8 GPA. But that education came at a cost. I began to feel ill near the end of the program and could not sit comfortably. I returned to work at Algonquin College, but after a few months I was still not feeling well and the doctors discovered a pilonidal sinus (cyst on my tailbone). This is had eaten away at my healthy tissue and caused a 14 cm x 18 cm pressure ulcer that had eaten right to the bone of my spinal column. I have been on complete to partial bedrest since 2000 (almost 14 years!) and I am no longer employed Algonquin College as a result. I am now on long-term disability and CPP disability, both of which barely cover our mortgage. Regardless of this, both Janet and I continued to raise our boys and manage our home without any support from anyone.
Despite me being in bed with this pressure sore, life went on as usual, but it did not take long before we started to notice problems with our home. In fact, on our last inspection before moving in, we were shocked to discover a ramp from the bathroom protruding into our master bedroom. A ramp, in the home that was designed accessible from the ground up. We immediately had the contractor remove the ramp and redo the bathroom floor, which was raised up 4 inches from the rest of the floor in the house. Despite our assurances that the bathroom would be restored as per the original plans, the bathroom door remained 4 inches off the floor and therefore 4 inches taller than every other door in the home. We have had to replace the tiles three times so far in that bathroom.
There was no linen closet built into the home, so we had to have an independent contractor come and create one using half of our master bedroom walk-in closet. There was no exit route at the bedroom and of the home, so we hired another contractor to add a sliding door in the master bedroom.
Our deck did not quite reach the bedroom, so we had to hire someone to extend the deck past the new sliding doors. We decided to hire the person who had done most of the building of our new home. He insisted on having money up front for materials and we had no reason not to trust this person considering he had just finished building the home. He came one day and spent about one hour putting in footings, asked for $3500 to pay for materials and we never saw him again. After a long battle with him, we finally took him to small claims court where we won a judgment against him for $5000 plus daily compound interest until the debt is paid - we have never seen a cent of that money.
Over the course of the first two years we began to notice many little problems with the home and decided to have a company from Ottawa do an assessment of the deficiencies. They found dozens of deficiencies in our home - many serious. Armed with this information we approached the Township to reimburse us for some of the costs. They found that their building inspector was negligent and offered us a total of $12,000 in order to cover some of the work. Although it helped, it barely scratched the surface of our problems.
Our crawlspace had been filled with sand which was spread over sheets of plastic. After a few years, we could smell mold and realized that the crawlspace was soaking wet and black mold had started forming. We hired a local contractor to repair the problem. Again, we paid him ahead of time for materials and he left before the job was finished, and with our basement in worse condition than it was before he started. We ultimately had to hire another contractor to do the job properly at double the price we had already paid.
Two years ago we had a roof replaced and discovered that more than half of the plywood on the roof was never nailed down. Several sheets had to be replaced and our chimney was not installed properly. Fortunately, On Top Roofing did the job properly. Thanks Solivans!
We recently replaced our furnace and had the ductwork re-done. During that process, we were told that part of our ductwork had never been attached to the kitchen and dining room area and therefore we have never had heat at that section of the house. The original furnace was never installed properly and had therefore been costing us far more in heating fuel than we should have ever had to pay. Finally, we now have a new propane heating furnace and proper ductwork, but at a cost that was three times more than we had expected.
My wife Janet and I have worked hard all of our lives and never asked for any handouts, but we are at our wits end and don't know what to do anymore. We really want to trust someone, but after all that has happened, it just seems like a hard thing to do.
Asking for help is something that feels very foreign to me and to Janet, but we really need something good to happen in our lives. So for the very first time I am reaching out to the community and asking for your support in helping to make our house the home that it should have been in the first place.
I would love to be working and to be able to afford to pay for these renovations myself, but that is not possible at this time. Not a day goes by where I do not think of the sacrifice my wife has made by continuing to work because she has to in order for us to keep this home. There is so much more that I have not gone into here, but I will gladly share with anyone who cares to listen.