I have cerebral palsy, and it’s something I’ve been hesitant to talk about my entire life. Cerebral palsy (CP) “is caused by injuries or abnormalities of the brain. Most of these problems occur as the baby grows in the womb. But they can happen at any time during the first 2 years of life.” As humbling as it is to accept, I have brain damage.
Except for the arrival of their favorite son, my parents have told me there was nothing remarkable about my birth in the mid-70s. Everything went according to plan, but when I was nearly three months old, too young for the vaccine, I contracted pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough. This is likely how I came to develop CP.
Over the years my parents have told me how terrifying it was to hear me coughing and gasping for air. If they weren’t in the room with me and I got quiet they would have to check to see if I was sleeping or if I’d stopped breathing. Once I started walking my parents noticed my left foot was always on its toes and turned inwards. On the advice of a family friend, my parents took me to get evaluated, where I was eventually diagnosed with CP.
It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I truly understood what that experience must have been like for my parents. They had just witnessed their baby struggle through whooping cough and then learned their baby had cerebral palsy. I had just started walking, too young to talk, there was no telling the extent of my injury at that stage. Can you imagine their concern?
The years that followed involved frequent trips to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) for physiotherapy and testing, more than 10 years with a brace on my left leg, a decade of at-home exercises and casts on both legs for a period of time (which made for an awesome Hallowe’en costume that year – most candy EVER).
Having CP doesn’t mean you cannot succeed in life. My university Sociology professor informed the class that he had CP. He was the first person with CP I had come across that, like me, was only affected physically and not mentally. He suffered from slurred speech and tremors in his arms and hands, but obviously was able to flourish in academia.
I have had more than 35 years to come to terms with the long-term impacts of CP. I walk with a slight limp, my balance is a bit of an issue and my left calf is noticeably smaller than my right. I’m at a disadvantage in most sports (which is a shame since of the 3 children in family I was the only one that expressed any interest in sports). Despite my brothers’ claims, I haven’t suffered any mental impairment. I graduated with honors from high school and received a degree in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo.
I mentioned earlier that I’m hesitant to discuss my cerebral palsy, not because I am embarrassed by it, but due to the extent of my injury. I have the most minor case I have personally encountered. Every time I publicly mention that I have CP, I think of all the others with the same affliction. The trials in my life due to CP pale in comparison to theirs. I do not take for granted that I have been extremely lucky.
CP has a wide spectrum of injuries that can result in mental impairment, physical impairment, or both. Growing up, the son of the family that lived next door also had CP, his was the result of an avoidable birth injury. While Stephen was able-bodied, he was a man in his 30s with the intellect of a 6 year old and needed special care throughout his life. I cannot stress enough how lucky I am.
Just like my neighbor’s CP, mine was also avoidable. I was too young for the pertussis vaccine when I contracted the virus, however I caught it from someone. That person was likely either unvaccinated or were under-vaccinated. Recently there has been a movement against vaccinations in general and it frightens me that parents may not have their children vaccinated against pertussis and other illnesses. Measles, mumps, pertussis and others are seen as minor afflictions to some, but I see myself as an example of what can happen as a result of contracting one of these illnesses.
I’m sharing my story and the story of others in the hopes that it will sway at least one doubtful parent to vaccinate. While I’ve been extremely lucky, I was likely seconds away from being severely impaired. A parent should take advantage of any protection they can offer their child, and that includes vaccination.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis (Whooping Cough). Last updated December 1, 2014. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
Mayo Clinic. Whooping Cough. Last updated January 15, 2015. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). Resources – Cerebral Palsy. Last updated May 2014. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
Mayo Clinic YouTube. Infant Girl with Whooping Cough. Published October 7, 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
World Cerebral Palsy Day. What is Cerebral Palsy Infographic. September 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
Booth, Michael. Nearly Half of All U.S. Children Undervaccinated, A New Study Shows. The Denver Post. January 21, 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2015.