“My high school years?” she shuddered. “After the doctors diagnosed me with polio at 13-years-old, they wanted to straighten my misshapen feet. So, for the next 5 summers in a row, my school vacations were spent either in the hospital or at home, immobilized, with heavy plaster casts weighing me down.” With raspy, uneven breath, Flora described those dreadful Mississippi summers as muggy, sticky and hot – really hot. “Neither the hospital nor my home had air conditioning in those days, so I was pretty uncomfortable – but I got through!” she added with her usual determination.
I first spoke with Flora in 2003, when I was getting to know the CMTA group leaders throughout the country. She told me that after her orthopedic surgeon “straightened her out”, she had left her polio diagnosis behind and moved forward with her life. She went to college, married her husband of 52 years – Billy Joe Jones in 1960 and had three children. After the birth of her youngest child, Cindy, she decided to stay at home to be a mother, wife, and homemaker.
Over the years, her legs weakened and her hands slowly lost function. In 1982, at the age of 45, she was finally diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease or CMT at an MDA clinic. Okay. There was a name for her progressive symptoms, but she wondered what she was supposed to do with the name. She couldn’t just “Google It” because home computers had not made their debut in society.
Luckily, by word of mouth, she heard about a CMT conference in Toronto, hosted by CMT International. No way was she going to miss this opportunity to learn and gather more information about CMT. Upon arrival, she was stunned to meet others with similarly-looking feet and hands – 200 other individuals with “the walk” including 30 people who admitted to breathing difficulties, like herself. One of her favorite parts of the conference was educating CMT clinicians about her own CMT.
In 1993, she was elated to discover a CMTA support group in her area. With her passion for spreading awareness and teaching others about CMT, it was not long before Flora stepped up as the leader of the Brandon, Mississippi CMTA support group. In fact, she involved the entire family in her mission and many weekends were devoted to mailing educational information, calling new members and organizing CMTA meetings.
Due to severely atrophied leg muscles, she lost her ability to walk at the age of 58, but that did not make one bit of difference. She continued to lead her group enthusiastically, informing the members about the CMTA, its research, and resources. Over the course of her lifetime, she touched innumerable lives, informed countless medical professionals and supported others who had a CMT diagnosis.
Toward the end of her life, she could barely use her hands, and her violent tremors made holding or sipping from a cup virtually impossible. Her paralyzed diaphragm made breathing harder and harder with each passing day and her weakened vocal cords affected her ability to talk. Yet, Flora did not let any of those worsening symptoms stop her from fulfilling her mission in a positive, cheerful and comforting way.
I just spoke to Flora a few months ago. She called to check in, to see how Yohan was doing after his foot surgeries. She told me he was always in her prayers. She admitted that her CMT was wreaking havoc on her body, but it would never, ever dampen her inner spirit. Even in her final months, she would not leave home without her brochures. She wanted to be ready to educate everyone and anyone who would listen to her about CMT. In a recent letter from Flora’s daughter, Cindy, she confided, “Even up to her last doctor’s appointment, she educated her doctors about CMT.” In February, Flora was given a new doctor, “a cute one!” she said with a wink. Super impressed that he really was interested in CMT, he even explained how he could help her live a productive life despite her limitations.
Following in Flora’s footsteps, I try to spread CMT awareness wherever I go, even if Yohan rolls his eyes out of his head like he’s screaming loudly. If we all speak about this progressive disease to our doctors, nurses, family, and friends think how many people would recognize the name, the symptoms, and the signs. “It’s CMT.” I say. “Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.” And when the person looks puzzled, which they usually do, I remind them of the acronym – CMT. To make it stick, I joke that CMT does NOT stand for Country Music Television. And I might add, “ It’s the other CMT-the one that destroys nerves, causes muscles to weaken, and disables the young and old. It’s Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and we desperately need a cure.” And a cure starts with awareness.
In memory of my friend Flora, who passed on April 1, 2018, at the age of 81 from CMT-related breathing complications, please help raise awareness of CMT. Think about it – even the most worthy causes won’t receive a dollar in donations if no one knows about them. Putting a face and a personal story on CMT may spur people into action, especially if they know their support will lead to a cure.
Flora, you are my inspiration to wake up every day and fight for a world without CMT. And now, I imagine you moving freely among the stars and dancing with angels. And I smile. I may not have told you during our phone conversations, but I admire you and love you deeply. Your memory will never be forgotten.
To find out more about CMTA research, please visit: https://www.cmtausa.org/breakthroughs-for-cmt/