Thursday, May 27, 2010
Russ Miller lives in a modest home in Marysville, Ohio, where he spends his days much the same as most retirees do; catching the latest football game, making minor repairs on the house, and doing the occasional landscaping and gardening. The difference is, Russ has been retired for thirty years and has lived his entire life with cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by an injury to the spinal cord during or after childbirth. From day one, he has had to overcome daily struggles with muscle coordination and speech and adapt into this ever changing world, but one conversation with this man will show you the power of the human will. Intelligent, kind, and gifted with the collected wisdom of many battles won, Russ is a model for anyone who has obstacles in their life, which happens to be all of us.
I grew up in a big family. There were seventeen of us kids, and the older boys and girls kind of helped the younger ones as they got older. When I was young the doctors diagnosed me with cerebral palsy, and that caused a lot of struggles for me, but I overcome them for the most part. I owe a lot to my family. With my problem they would pitch in and help me walk and do different things at the time. In fact, they went so far as to stretch ropes between the windows, and that’s how I learned to walk. I walked between the ropes to hold my balance, and my brothers and sisters were always there to catch me if I happened to take a tumble. I had leg braces from my shoulders down to me feet.
When I was six years old, the National Easter Seals Society, a charity for disabled children at the time, provided funds for my braces and shoes, and the state helped pay for my operations. Without those braces, I’d hate to see where I’d be now. They helped stabilize my legs while I built up the strength to walk. As I got older, they took the braces away from me, but they took them away too soon and my legs couldn’t hold me up. I was walking on my knee caps at one point. Not long after that I had to have my first surgery. My hamstrings were drawn up so tight that I just couldn’t hold myself up, so they had to go in there and cut the hamstrings behind the legs and put twelve inches of new muscle in there so I could straighten my legs out. That was an experience. You know, let me tell you a little story about that. I had a friend, a young lady that I went to school with, had the same thing I had. Her name was Judy Carter. She had the braces, had the crutches, had it all exactly the same as me. She had the same operations as I had, too. Me and a buddy of mine, we went to visit her one time, and here she was in a wheelchair. She didn’t have any braces on, she had three kids that she had bore, and she was married, of course. We got to talking about old times, and I just stopped to ask, I said, “Judy, I got something to ask you.” I said, “You got the same surgeries I had, why aren’t you up and around?” And she said, “I couldn’t take the pain.” I said, “Well shame on you.” It was very painful. I had that first surgery, and I was in casts for six weeks. They took me to the hospital and took my casts off, and I had a little bit of infection, so they kept me for about a week. Every day they would put my braces on me and they’d make me get up and walk, and that was the toughest thing I had to do because the pain was so intense. They had a pan in front of me, and every step I’d take I’d get sick. Up to the second day it got easier, and the third day it got easier, and I kept on going, you know? It was another challenge, another challenge that I overcame.
Wearing the braces and going through the pain of therapy was always hard, but it was very rewarding at the same time. Just knowing the fact that I had to wear them, and they were gonna help me along to be able to overcome a lot of my spasticity, I was able to look at it a different way and say, “These things are bad, but I’m gonna wear them anyhow.”At one point the doctors told my mom and dad to put me in an institution. Parents were different back then, they couldn’t deal with this, so they would put some of the kids in a home. Some of these kids were just like me. They had a brain, they could function, but their body just couldn’t do what they wanted them to do. A lot of them went into an institution, and my mom told the doctor, she said, “You know, I’ve had fourteen children, this is number fifteen. I didn’t give up on them and I won’t give up on this one.” I always felt bad for the other kids that couldn’t overcome the trials and tribulations. I would look at them and see the ones that just couldn’t overcome, and I would think, “There’s always someone worse off than you are.” You get what the good lord gave you and that’s what you have to live with.
Dad and Mom didn’t make a lot of money back then, but we managed. We were all taught self reliance, and everyone was expected to do their share. At one time we had eight kids living at home, and that was a pretty good group. I got treated equal. There was no favoritism. I got my rear end thumped a few times. [laughs] I was expected to do all the normal things that my brothers and sisters did. I would get up, and first thing they’d do is one of my brothers would put my braces on me, and that was a challenge in the winter time because they were so cold. I didn’t really want to wear them at times, but they’d put them on me and wait for my bus, which was a taxi cab by the way, that took me to school and brought me home. I’d do my lessons and chores when I got home and that’s about it.
Of course, I liked to have fun, too. There were several things I couldn’t do as a kid, so I kind of reinvented baseball. I could pitch and catch, and I could hit the ball. Of course, I couldn’t run, but somebody would always run for me. I had a tricycle that I like to ride around the yard, so that helped too. I kind of had to reinvent life. I had to adapt on a daily basis to keep up with my brothers and sisters. I saw how they go and go and do and do and I told myself, “I can do this. I just have to do things a little differently.” We’re all the same, really. Just do things a little differently, that’s all.
I was always different, of course, and people weren’t as accepting back then. One of the hardest things was go to the grocery store. I hated it, but my mom and dad made me go anyhow, because they said, you know, look, you gotta be out in the public. Whether you want to or not, you’ve got to. Don’t let that bother you. So it did bother me, for a few years it bothered me, and then I kind of got used to the idea, you know, it’s just the way people are, that’s all. You just have to rise above people sometimes. Looking back, I’m glad they made me do that.
After I got out of school I had a hard time finding a job. At the time there were laws and companies wouldn’t hire the handicapped. Insurance wouldn’t cover them, I guess. So that went to my mentality and discouraged me a little, but eventually they changed the laws and my brother in law got me a job working for the county at a water pumping station. I would watch the gauges and keep the place clean. It was a good job, I really enjoyed it. I did that for a couple years, then I got a job at the county courthouse as a parking attendant. I met a lot of good people there. I worked there for seven years until I retired in ’78. I took a fall and I was out of work for about a year, so my bosses decided it was time for me to retire. They threw me a big party and there was a big write up in the paper. That was a good time. Now I’m just enjoying my retirement. My wife, Virginia, retires in a few years, so I’m looking forward to that so I can spend more time with her. I’ve been retired for a long time, can’t hardly believe it sometimes, but the way I see it I’m about to start whole new chapter with many more to come, God willing and if the devil don’t care. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot, and I’ve overcome a lot. That’s what life’s about, seein’, doin’, and overcomin’.
For those people out there with dreams, I would say once you set your goal, keep after it. Don’t give up, just keep right on it. You know, you’ll have your downfalls and your pitfalls, but just keep right on goin’. If you want something bad enough, you’ll get it. You just gotta keep punchin’. Sometimes you get knocked down, but you gotta get back up, no matter how much it hurts.