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Ruth Noland became paralyzed one week after getting married in 1945. Despite warnings from her doctors and a general lack of public support for people with disabilities, she went on to achieve many of her dreams. KSMU’s Kristian Kriner has the story of one woman’s courage to push beyond physical limitations to live the life she wanted to live.
Picture America during World War II: Many men are overseas fighting while many women are heading to work.One of those women was Ruth Noland, who got a job as a riveter in an aircraft plant.But Ruth’s real passion was nursing, so she turned in her rivets and joined the Cadet Nurse Corps.
“We had uniforms and we had to march in parades and in exchange for this, we agreed after graduation to go wherever they sent us to service hospitals.”Ruth says she really wanted to go overseas and help injured soldiers, but she became ill and that prevented her from finishing nursing school.Since she couldn’t finish one dream, she decided to pursue another--- getting married and having children. Ruth got married in 1945 and just one week later, her life changed.“It’s called Transverse Myelitis. It can hit people at any age and it just happened to get me right after I got married.”Ruth was 21 years old and was paralyzed from the shoulders down.So, newly-wed Ruth Noland found out she may never walk or move her hands again. And as if that weren’t enough…she also found out she might never be able to get pregnant and give birth.In 1945, doctors didn’t know what caused the paralysis, but Ruth was later diagnosed with a rare condition called Transverse Myelitis. It’s a neurological disorder that causes her spinal cord to become inflamed.Ruth found herself with this condition at a time when people with disabilities had few opportunities. For one thing, it was decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. Still, Ruth decided to move on with her life, not really worrying about the stares she got in public or the warnings she got from her doctors.“You just go. You can’t just sit in a corner. You have to live your life. You have the same interests that you would have if you walked normally. You’re the same person basically. It’s just that you have a problem. I heard the doctors tell my husband that I would never walk again and I said ‘Yes, I will.’ And I was determined to and I did, not real well, but I did.” Ruth says after a while her movement actually started coming back.“When my movement came back, I was just so thankful to have everything that I had, because when you have nothing, you can’t move anything and then you get to where you can, you just have to be very grateful for that. And I still am for everything I’ve got yet.”
Ruth says she couldn’t move her body like she once did, but she was grateful that she could walk with a cane.Then Ruth did something else that doctors told her she would never do--- have children.Ruth gave birth to a baby girl.Doctors told her that having another child would place a serious strain on her body, but she got pregnant anyway and gave birth to a boy.Even though she had very limited movement, Ruth raised her children.She couldn’t do all the things she wanted to like run outside with her kids or even pick them up off the floor.Once her kids were grown, Ruth decided to try some new things.She took a year long course at the Mexican American Institute, because she wanted to go to Mexico and teach English.Ruth says she lived in Mexico for several years teaching children and adults how to speak English.“I had a couple classes that came to my home. Five in one class and six in another and then I taught adults individually. I enjoyed it. It was fun. Kids that came in and all they could say was ‘hello’ and they’d go out singing a song that I had a record for.”
Ruth says one of her students even wrote her a letter, in English, thanking her for her service.She says living with a disability hasn’t been easy, but she always felt motivated to do things that people wouldn’t expect her to do.“I learned how to drive when I was in my 50s with hand controls. Going fast on the highway was kind of hard at first, but I learned how to do it. I enjoy driving. It was really neat to be able to learn to do that for the time that I could.”
Ruth says she has never been discouraged by her disability…but she was worried she wouldn’t live to see her children grow up.“My main concern, because of my health problem, I wanted to see my children grow to become responsible adults and beyond that, everything is icing on the cake. Sometimes I think my cup runs over. I’m very fortunate.”
Ruth says she doesn’t think she's a courageous person, because she only did what she had to do. She says her faith helped with that.If you ask Ruth, she’ll tell you there are many people out there who are more courageous than her. She really admires men and women in the military, for example. She maintains that she just did what she had to do, to live the life she wanted to live.“To me there was no choice. You do everything that you can do or you sit and do nothing and I wasn’t raised to sit and do nothing. It isn’t what happens to you that’s important, but what you do with it that counts. So, you can have a good life in spite of problems.”
Despite all the warnings from doctors over the years, including one prediction that she’d probably get pneumonia and die at an early age, Ruth is now 85 years old. She lives at Woodland Manor in Springfield, where she paints, surfs the internet and visits with her friends and family.Ruth says, quite simply, she’s been blessed.For KSMU, I’m Kristian Kriner.