It was 11:15 PM on Friday night, September 23, 1983 and Barbara Turnbull was near the end of her shift At Becker's Convenience Store in Mississauga, Ontario. Suddenly, three armed young men burst into the store to rob it. Without warning, one of them shot Barbara, severing her spinal cord, and changing her life forever. The shooting left her a high-level quadriplegic, able to move only her head and shoulders.
For the next year she underwent rehabilitation at two different hospitals, then got through a difficult four-month trial of the four men charged for armed robbery and attempted murder. That would be enough to make many people bitter and depressed, but not Barbara. She had things to do! She headed to Arizona State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism. The woman she hired for a month to come and train her attendants ended up staying for two years and received a teaching certificate. Barbara graduated 1990 with honors and as class valedictorian. Technology made it possible for her to operate a wheelchair with her head, typing with her voice. The Toronto Star offered her an internship while a student, and after graduation she became a reporter at the paper.
"I can't pinpoint the day – or even the year – when I accepted life as a quadriplegic. It likely happened incrementally over time. I only know that I have always lived as full a life as I can, tolerating what I have no choice about, fighting what I don't have to accept, finding joy in many places and having no problem being grateful for gifts small and large," Barbara said. Not that she doesn't have difficult moments and days. "For example," she says, "I have no tolerance for technical problems with my chair or assistive devices. When something breaks down, my mood instantly blackens." "Overall," she says "life is manageable when I have good attendants, work that is interesting, live music, good food, regular therapeutic exercises and things to look forward to."
Her first byline was published in the Toronto Star in 1989 – an obituary! Over the years, Barbara conducted hundreds of interviews for the Star, most of them facilitated by telephone. She would record her interviews, transcribed them with the help of an attendant and write her stories on a computer using voice software. Not being able to take notes has its disadvantages. "My equipment sometimes lets me down," she says. "Like the time I hung up from interviewing actor and director Robert Redford and discovered my tape recorder had malfunctioned about 10 seconds into our conversation." For the next 25 years she reported for the Star, tackling difficult assignments. During that same time, she also became an advocate for the disabled in Canada, established a foundation to support neuroscience research, became a published author and facilitated speaking engagements on subjects ranging from medical research, accessibility and community living to the pros and cons of social activism. Since 2002, her foundation has awarded over $500,000 U.S.D. to Canadian researchers who have worked to advance spinal cord research.
About seven years ago, Barbara developed a pressure sore that by her own admission may well be with her for the rest of her life. Because of that, she couldn't spend the same number of hours in her chair as when she was younger and could no longer fly. She mostly worked from home and sometimes in bed. "My age, lack of circulation, and length of time paralyzed all work against me," she said. In the spring of 2015 Barbara contracted a case of pneumonia and couldn't shake off its complications. On Sunday, May 10, 2015, she passed away, surrounded by her family.
Barbara Turnbull led a life well lived and is someone you should know.