Wednesday, June 12, 2024
HomeNewsStar reporter Barbara Turnbull overcame debilitating injury to carve out a superlative...

Star reporter Barbara Turnbull overcame debilitating injury to carve out a superlative career

| Source:
Spinal Cord Injury:

Barbara TurnbullTurnbull, who died Sunday afternoon at age 50, is remembered for her “strength, her bravery, the depth of her independence, her writing talent and her vibrant personality.”

Retired Toronto Star editor Nick van Rijn admits that when he first saw reporter Barb Turnbull in the newsroom, he thought: “What is she doing here?”

Years earlier, a teenage Turnbull had been shot in the neck during a robbery, severing her spinal cord and rendering her a high-level quadriplegic.

“She wasted no time showing me what she was doing here,” van Rijn recalled Sunday, echoing the sentiments of many others at the Star.

Turnbull died Sunday afternoon from complications related to pneumonia. She was 50.

“It was really beautiful,” her sister Alison told the Star. “She went very peacefully with her family around her.” Turnbull leaves behind her mother and father, four sisters, nieces and nephews and her extended family.

Despite “my accident” — as Turnbull called the 1983 shooting during a robbery in the Mississauga convenience store where she worked — she graduated with honours from Arizona State University’s journalism school as class valedictorian in 1990. She was subsequently hired by the Star, where she became a champion of disability rights and organ donation over her incredible career at the newspaper.

Former Star managing editor Mary Deanne Shears hired her in the early ’90s. “Little did I know then of her strength, her bravery, the depth of her independence, her writing talent and her vibrant personality. But the Star newsroom came to know all of that, and many of its journalists became her friend, as did I. She was smart and feisty and kind and determined to make every day and every assignment count. I shall miss her so much.”

It’s a long list of influential people who befriended Turnbull, after being astounded by her spirit.

Former Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry met her shortly after the shooting.

“I admired Barb so much. She was without a doubt the most courageous person I had ever known,” he said. “The thing about Barbara was there was never a note of sadness that I ever observed. She must have had terrible, sad moments, but she refused to dwell on that.”

Doctor Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon who removed the bullet that had pressed on Turnbull’s spinal cord, also became a lifelong friend. “She certainly was one of the bravest people that I have ever met, and in fact she in turn inspired so many people around her. There were several instances where she reached out to recently injured people who sustained spinal cord injuries and tried to ease their burden.”

Tator called her efforts to raise money for research in the field, “a significant contribution to Canadian society.” He described Turnbull as a “colleague and good friend.”

Former Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley spoke with deep admiration for Turnbull, who advocated for many of the same causes as he does. “I think the way she carried herself, if I can say that, and really rose above an incredibly difficult situation of being cut down in the prime of her life, and to lose, you know, basically all control of her body, and yet she continued on, not only to have a meaningful life and a life with a significant profession and a career, but also became one of the articulate spokespeople insofar as accessibility was concerned … in that whole time period of the late ’80s, early ’90s, was when awareness really first started to come about in our culture in terms of accessibility.”

Turnbull’s colleagues at the Star remembered a journalist who became an institution, tenaciously advocating for causes that she understood like few others.

“I covered that story the night she was shot,” recalled senior columnist Rosie DiManno. “In the years since, I’ve been in awe over what Barb accomplished as a journalist and how she lived her life. She was kind and generous and funny, and without bitterness. She also had great hope for the promise of spinal cord injury research.”

The Barbara Turnbull Foundation was launched by Turnbull to generate public support for Canadian research on spinal cord injuries. It focuses on finding co-operative approaches among institutions and provides an annual prize for the Canadian Institute of Health Research for the top grant application in the area of spinal cord injury.

Turnbull wrote her 1997 autobiography Looking in the Mirror largely to help raise funds and spread her optimism about the possibility of finding ways to regenerate damaged cells in the spinal cord. She was often invited to speak in front of large audiences about her advocacy.

Over the years Turnbull’s foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for research. In 2012 she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

“There are tragedies every day in the news and there were tragedies every day then,” said close friend and broadcaster Dini Petty. But the camera went to Barbara Turnbull and it didn’t leave. She became a phenomenon.”

Turnbull was described by some friends as always on the go. Colleague and close friend Joe Hall said he was shocked by how quickly Turnbull made people see her as she wanted to be seen.

“The miracle of Barb was you lost the chair. A whirring, lumbering, 300-pound contraption — the legacy of a cowardly crime and catastrophic injury. Yet if you knew her, it disappeared. Gone, in the glow of a sublime spirit.”

“Barb was exceptional in the way she conducted her life,” said another former colleague, Leslie Scrivener. “She used positive language, the language of the able-bodied, so that she was not set apart. Because of that we didn’t set her apart. She walked to work. She had lunch with you. The relationship was collegial, not dependent.”

Early in her career, Turnbull used a specially designed stick that she manipulated with her mouth to work the keyboard. But voice recognition software and other technology eventually made it easier to do her job. She was writing for the Star’s Life section right up till her final illness, publishing her last story in early March.

Respect and sadness overcame many of Turnbull’s colleagues Sunday.

Scrivener recalls her amazement when Turnbull would even be sent to the United States to cover stories. Van Rijn says she was quickly approached like any other reporter, getting stories assigned to her, going off to do her interviews and writing them up.

“She didn’t know any limitations,” he said, his voice full of emotion. “Can you imagine waking up every morning and doing what she did without being able to feel or move anything below your neck?”

Torstar board chair and former publisher John Honderich said Turnbull’s work was exemplary.

“She was a great journalist. She wrote some tremendous stories. This is someone whose name had transcended virtually everything, and so people knew the story of Barbara Turnbull.

“And yet she was insistent, always determined to be just considered, she was a journalist doing her job, she wanted to do great stories, she wanted to do stories that mattered. She cared about the paper. In those respects she would be like any other reporter.

“But she wasn’t. She wasn’t every other reporter, and that’s what made it so special.”

In 2013 Turnbull authored an e-book, What I Know: Lessons from My 30 years of Quadriplegia, published by the Star.

In its introduction, she wrote: “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.”

And near the end, she wrote, “It is possible to build a life that is satisfying and has happy moments, despite what comes at you. The majority of us who face adversity — not just paralysis — discover this.”

By: San Grewal Urban Affairs Reporter, Jackie Hong The Star Staff Reporter

Visit: Barbara Turnbull Foundation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

- Advertisment -

Must Read

Managing Pressure Injuries – Free Course on Cortree from SCIO

Pressure injuries are a health concern for many people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. As we age, our level of mobility and...