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For Lorene “Lori” Spada, winning a new custom-built handicapped accessible van would mean the return of her Photo by Brandon Hicksindependence.

Winning contest would help local woman regain independence

Published 12:58pm Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Spada is one of thousands competing in a contest running through May 9 by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association during Mobility Awareness Month. Contestants collect votes online, and several winners will be given a handicapped-accessible conversion van.

Spada has faced a life-long struggle after contracting polio in 1955 when she was 1 year old. She was paralyzed for three years, but regained her mobility thanks to focused attention from family members.

“My mom’s cousin would come and work with me daily; massaging my muscles, moving my arms and legs,” Spada said. “Between my mom, her and my grandmother, they worked to help me get my movement back.”

She then started to walk with the help of braces: First with larger, full-body braces, and then with smaller leg braces. Through determination and therapy, Spada was walking brace-free by seventh-grade.

“I wasn’t using braces, but I probably should have been,” she said. “I still had limitations but I wanted to live life to the fullest. They told my mom that I wouldn’t live. Then they told her I would never walk. They said I wouldn’t develop like I should and that I would never have children. I did everything they said I couldn’t do.”

Spada’s muscles did remain weak after contracting polio. She had a muscle transplant to move muscles from her legs to her stomach to help improve her core strength.

She maintained a regular job from the time she was 18 until she was 36. She also married and had one son.

Around 15 years ago, she was diagnosed with post polio syndrome, and her muscles continued to weaken and deteriorate more. She started to fall more often, breaking her leg twice and her knee three times. She started using a motorized wheelchair in 1993 to go where she needed to.

Then in 2007, Spada fell and crushed the tibial plateau in her leg. After completing physical therapy and seeing specialists, Spada was advised to use her wheelchair more often to get around. She said at first, she would use the chair when needed to travel long distances, but as her muscles continued to weaken, she started needing the wheelchair more and more.

She acquired her current 1996 van in 2009, but she is not able to drive it herself because it lacks hand controls for the brake and the gas pedal. Also, she said the van requires a lot of upkeep and maintenance for frequent issues that arise in the vehicle. She said she has been completely homebound for the past two years unless she is able to find someone to drive her in the van she currently has.

“I so miss being able to drive and be independent,” Spada said. “I am not able to drive the vehicle we currently have now and it is old and barely holding on. Our only form of income is Social Security disability. We will never be able to afford a handicap-accessible van. We can’t even afford the repairs that this vehicle so desperately needs. When it no longer runs, I fear I will be housebound indefinitely and have a diminished quality of life.”

Spada said her husband was sometimes able to make repairs to the van and to drive her where she needed to go, but he is also disabled and battling his own health concerns. He had a massive injury to his foot and had a back injury as well. He is now recovering from surgery.

“I would love the opportunity to lighten his load by being able to drive myself to the grocery store or wherever is needed,” she said. “Plus it would be a sense of freedom for me. It is difficult to have to rely on the good will of others, even though they are willing to help when they can. I would love to be able to have a vehicle we feel safe enough in to see our family.”

When Spada needs to go somewhere, and her husband can’t drive her, she said she starts calling other family and friends. One of her main helpers is her daughter-in-law, Christina Spada.

Christina called her mother-in-law an “inspiration.”

“She has been dealing with polio her whole life, but it has never stopped her from having a full life,” she said. “The doctors told her she would never walk or she would never have kids, but she did both of those things. She is now permanently in her wheelchair and she is trying to do things herself, but it is a lot harder and she has to depend on others, but she always has a smile on her face.”

Spada said winning the new van would ease the mental strain she faces from not having a reliable vehicle. She said she had looked in replacing her current van, but the $30,000 to $40,000 price tag for a used accessible van put it out of her family’s budget.

“One of my biggest fears is for the van to not work and I will be housebound,” she said. “I tried to live as full and as independent as I could but the constant falls started taking a toll. I tried to be independent but I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Spada currently has 1,008 votes in the competition. To vote for Spada, visit http://www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com/entrant/lorene-spada-elizabethton-tn/. Voting is allowed once per day per email address. Extra votes can be earned by answering a poll question on the website. Voting ends May 9.

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