A second chance well lived

September 2022

Ruth Chapman knows that life isn’t just for existing, but for living. She knows that each day is precious and should be seized and lived to its fullest. And she knows that every adventure she takes, no matter how challenging it is for her body and mind, is a reminder that she is alive. Alive!

Before Ruth retired as a physical education teacher at Fort William Collegiate twenty years ago, she enjoyed horseback riding, dog sledding, hiking, canoeing, rock and ice climbing, and many other outdoor activities that let her enjoy nature and breathe in the fresh Boreal air. When retirement came, instead of slowing down, she shifted into a higher gear and started an outdoor education program on her 55-acre piece of property on Mountain Road. She was looking forward to seeing the joy on children’s faces as she took them rock climbing and through the ropes courses, appreciating their own little adventures in the woods.

“I had many things I was looking forward to,” Ruth said. “Running the program, hiking with my dog, snowboarding in the winter, rock and ice climbing, and simply enjoying life.”

But life has a way of suddenly throwing a curve ball that completely changes the game.

While her sister-in-law was driving Ruth to the University of Toronto, where Ruth was invited to speak about her outdoor education program, Ruth suddenly had an incredible headache and started throwing up. She passed out and her sister-in-law rushed her to the hospital.

When they arrived, it was discovered that Ruth had had a massive brain aneurysm, an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) – a very rare neurological disorder that stopped the blood flow and caused stroke-like conditions. She was immediately rushed to the hospital in Hamilton, where the best brain surgeon in Canada just happened to be there that day giving a lecture.

“Some people may think of it as coincidence that the brain surgeon was there that day, and some may think it was just a fluke that I was in Toronto when it happened, but I know my angel was watching over me,” Ruth says.

After surgery, laying in her hospital bed, Ruth soon realized the extent of the damage the aneurysm had done to her mind and her body.

“I had lost practically everything. My ability to talk, walk, read, even recognize numbers and do simple math, everything was gone, except my long-term memory.”

If Ruth was experiencing any depression, it was short lived. A card from a former student’s mother arrived and helped her see things in a whole new way. The card read: You are about to begin the biggest adventure in your life, and it gave Ruth some food for thought. “I loved it!” Ruth remembers with more than a little fondness. “I realized, who gets to go on an adventure like this? I shouldn’t boo-hoo over it, but rather see the positive and see everything as a challenge – not an obstacle.”

Learning how to speak again was a slow and tedious process. She had to process her thoughts and rearrange the jumbled mess in her mind. Reading was also a challenge. She took out the “Dick and Jane” books from the children’s section of the library at St. Joe’s Care Group, and with the help of staff and friends, learned her ABC’s, their phonetic sounds, and how they made words.

And then there was the joy of learning how to walk, how to move her arms, and how to become mobile and independent. “It was a huge challenge,” Ruth admits. “The physiotherapist would tell me to move my right arm and I didn’t even know my right
from my left anymore!” she says
with a laugh. “I had to do it on
my own.”

And she did. For ten years.

But what, you may ask, made her persevere? What was the source of her inspiration?

“It was the definitely the outdoor centre that kept me going,” Ruth admits.
“I wanted to see it succeed. I wanted to see kids meet challenges, head on, and realize they could triumph. I wanted to see children smile because I knew that their happiness could become my own.”

It was the kids from Camp Quality who put the biggest smile on Ruth’s face. Fighting cancer, these children needed and thrived on building success, and opportunities to climb a rock wall and stay on a ropes course provided just the right challenge. “When you see a kid climb a wall, after they looked at it wide eyed with more than a little trepidation, you can’t help but share their happiness in their success.”

And there were the kids from George Jeffrey who taught Ruth more about teaching than she had learned in the 30+ years she had spent working at FWCI. “I had to toss my lesson plans out the window,” Ruth admits. She learned to take a whole different approach, and focus on team building, and see what strengths each child had to offer, and then build from those strengths. “Any success, no matter how small it may be to someone who doesn’t face the same challenges these kids face, is a great success, and deserves to be celebrated.”

On the top of one of the centre’s climbing walls, a very important piece of advice is written in bold letters: “Shoot for the moon and you’ll reach the stars!” It’s a reminder for everyone, especially these kids, that they can keep going, they can live life to its fullest, and they can overcome the challenges life throws their way.

Especially if it’s a curve ball.

And who better is there to remind them of this, then someone who hit that curve ball clear out of the park?

The centre is closed now. Ruth had wanted to run it just during the winter so she could spend more time with her grandchildren, but paying full time insurance for a half year of coverage was financially impossible so she had to make the difficult decision and close it down.

“It was a hard time for me, but I realized that as I closed one chapter in my life, I was ready to take on the adventure of a new one,” Ruth says with a smile.

She recalls her inspiration from Nordic Skiing Jack Rabbits founder, Herman Smith-Johansen, who skied well past his 100th birthday, and she says with more than a little conviction, “I’m 75 now, but I feel just like the day before my AVM seizure when I was 55. And since I’m only 75, I figure I have a couple more years to go – at least!”

And judging from her batting average, Ruth has many more home runs to make. “I’m enjoying time with my six grandchildren, doing lots of back-country skiing in the winter and lots of hiking during the spring, summer, and fall. And then there’s my daily kick-sledding excursions with my husky, Miska, that gets me outside no matter what weather.”

Just goes to show that it’s never too late to start all over again.

Donna White is an accomplished author and Jubilee Medal winner for her volunteer work with World Vision. Visit her website at www.DonnaWhiteBooks.com

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