A woman who was at death’s door two years ago is gearing up for the Tely 10
Elizabeth Squires plans to walk the Tely 10. Over the past two years, she’s defied medical odds dealing with upper body paralysis after suffering thyroid cancer. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram
Barely a minute into an interview about her plans to walk the Tely 10, Elizabeth Squires gets a call from her doctor with news that cancer has been detected.
But the call is no game-changer for a woman who defied medical expectations after undergoing a risky operation for thyroid cancer and an induced coma that left her with paralysis from her ears to her shoulders.
After pulling through the surgery, she lacked muscle structure in her neck, couldn’t raise her arms higher than her chest and had a feeding tube for liquid meal replacements.
She would haul a kitchen chair into the tub and push her head down to wash her hair, and kept at it until she eventually could stand again in the shower.
She taught herself to swallow, starting with yogurt.
“One spoonful of yogurt a day. Now I eat everything, even steak,” she explained in the kitchen of her Wedgewood Park home in St. John’s.
She would wash dishes and place a dried cup in one hand and use the other to push her arm up to hang the mug on a hook in the cupboard.
She would scoop snow only to watch it fall off the shovel because she couldn’t hurl it.
But eventually she conquered those chores, too.
Squires raises her arms above her head and sideways to demonstrate her range of movement now.
“I was lucky to be alive. I wasn’t concerned about all the things that were wrong with me,” she said.
When Squires found out she had cancer in April 2009, she was actually in the doctor’s office with her husband George, waiting for the results of his medical tests.
George, who had Alzheimer’s, died last fall.
Squires’ doctor didn’t like the sound of her voice.
She was sent immediately to have a scope test, but there was so much cancer the specialist couldn’t get the diagnostic light down her throat.
She had a slow-growing cancer that had likely been present for 40 years, but didn’t know it.
She remembers sneezing and coughing while hanging clothes on the line, but always put it down to allergies.
But by April 2009, the cancer had reduced her breathing to five per cent capacity, and she was put in intensive care.
After her hospitalization, she came home determined to defy her newfound disability.
“My husband needed me to look after him. I needed me to look after me,” she said.
“I could whisper, but my husband was deaf. So I got him new digital hearing aids and I started to learn how to shout. So that’s how I learned how to talk.”
When she began to see improvements, her family doctor suggested other nerves might replace the damaged ones. That was all the encouragement she needed to do anything everybody else could do.
Squires and her husband were married 44 years.
They met roller skating at Memorial Stadium when George asked her best friend to skate during a “trio” event. Afterwards, her friend thanked him and George asked Squires, then 17, for another skate.
And that was it.
George was eight years older and a Catholic, while she was a Protestant. He grew up in modest means downtown, selling newspapers to earn money, while she grew up on Elizabeth Avenue, with art classes and other luxuries.
None of the differences mattered, Squires said. They were in love.
“He was such a sweetheart. He was very kind and gentle. And he had a wonderful sense of humour. Everybody should be so lucky,” she said.
Squires and her husband — who worked for 13 years as a Telegram truck driver at the old Duckworth Street location, and then worked in construction until retirement — were avid walkers.
When Squires was in hospital after surgery, her husband would walk three times a day to St. Clare’s from Wedgewood Park, a distance of nearly six kilometres each way.
While caring for him at home, she’d take him out for daily walks. If they arrived back home and he said he’d like to go for a walk — forgetting because of the Alzheimer’s where they’d just been — she’d get his coat on again and they were off.
On Sundays, they went to Mass at the Basilica, dodging snowbanks in wintry weather.
Squires recalls on Tely 10 day over the years, she and George would wave at runners passing the Basilica as Mass was letting out. It never occurred to them to take part.
But in recent months, when she started measuring her own walks with a pedometer on her iPod Nano, she noted she was already walking six to seven miles a day and if she pushed it, she could walk the Tely 10.
“George would have thought that was a hoot. I’ll be forever doing it,” she laughed, adding she whittled her time down from three hours and 55 minutes to three hours and four minutes.
Now she’s registered for Bib 504 in the Tely 10 on July 24.
Her lifelong walking is what she believes saved her two years ago.
She still has some effects of the paralysis. For instance, she has to be careful about using a curling iron because she can’t feel anything in her neck and might burn herself.
Squires is not letting the small amount of cancerous tissue found in her lymph node get her down. She’s had two massive radioactive iodine treatments in the past two years and isn’t sure what’s ahead.
But she’s working on a second genealogy book, still makes intricate Barbie doll costumes, is a talented painter and runs her own bookkeeping business.
“I can’t spend time worrying about it. I’ve got too much else on my plate I want to do,” she said. “If you can’t change it, you can’t worry about it.”