For Barbara Turnbull, experiencing the challenges and possibilities of the medical system has been a reality for the past 29 years, since age 18, when she was left a high-level quadriplegic after she was shot during a robbery attempt at the convenience store where she worked.
Despite the devastation of her injury, the experiences and people she has encountered since that fateful night have taught her the importance and richness of giving back to the community. It is a life lesson reinforced by friends such as the late author and activist June Callwood and York’s Chancellor Roy McMurtry.
Now an accomplished author, Toronto Star life writer, internationally recognized advocate for those living with disabilities and creator of the Barbara Turnbull Foundation for Spinal Cord Research, she was on the York University convocation stage, accompanied by her special skills dog, Bella, to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University.
“You have chosen health care, and there is no area more important than that in our society. In a significant way, it defines Canada, and how each of you deals with people under your care will define you as a person,” Turnbull told graduating students of the Faculty of Health during Friday’s ceremony.
“As you commence upon the momentous part of your life, I would like you to consider what kind of legacy you are going to craft for yourself,” she said. “I have come to firmly believe that one of the great secrets of a satisfying life is actively working to better your community. It is a truism that your impact will be as big or as small as you want it to be.”
Learning the power of kindness, taking a moment to fill out an organ donor card, volunteering and excelling in one’s profession are all important ways to better society, said Turnbull. “In the nearly 30 years since, I have relied on untold health-care practitioners for the longstanding effects that go with paralysis, and some unexpected medical situations that have sorely tested our good doctors, nurses, health-care professionals and more. I could not carry on my life as I do without some of the people who are exactly where some of you are today, graduates of health studies.”
She closed her speech by quoting the American poet Maya Angelou, “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will not forget how you made them feel.”
“As graduates of York University’s Faculty of Health, go forth and treat your fellow citizens with respect, dignity and kindness,” she said. “Recognize your blessings and give back.”