In 1967 a diving accident left Joni Earekson Tada a quadriplegic. During two years of painful rehabilitation she began the long process of adapting to her wheelchair-bound life, even learning how to paint with a brush held between her teeth. Joni’s books have become an inspiration to many, and the feature length film Joni has been translated into fifteen languages and brought her worldwide acclaim.
Today the Joni and Friends organisation helps thousands of people with disabilities every year. Joni has also become a prominent disability campaigner, well versed in the many bio-ethical dilemmas technology now presents to us, including the use of embryonic stem cells for research.
For those unaware of your background, help us understand just what that day in 1967 was like, and just how difficult that recovery process has been for you.
Well, it was a hot summer day. I went swimming with my sister Cathy and took a dive off this raft that was anchored far off shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and didn’t really check the depth of the water. I took the dive and the depth of the water was only about four or five feet. My head hit the bottom, that snapped my neck back and it crushed my fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, which severed my spinal cord. And that left me completely paralysed.
I was lying face down in the water, holding my breath, desperately hoping that my sister Cathy would notice that I had not yet surfaced from my dive. Just as I was about to run out of breath, a crab bit my sister’s toe. She had her back turned to me, and when that crab bit she whirled around in the water to scream to me to watch out for crabs. She saw that I wasn’t on the raft, saw my blond hair floating in the water and came racing after me and pulled me up out of the water. They sent me off to a hospital where I stayed for almost two years.
But that was in 1967, and now almost forty years later—four decades of quadriplegia and living in a wheel chair—I can tell you honestly that I would really rather be in this chair knowing God the way I do, the peace and the comfort that he gives, than to be on my feet without him. I can say that with a smile. That is quite a miracle.
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That is indeed a miracle. You came to faith through the accident too.
There were good Christian friends who would come into the hospital and bring pizza and they would bring their guitars and we’d watch soccer matches on Saturday afternoon television. And when they opened up their Bibles they would read to me. At first I wasn’t very excited about it because I was quite angry at God. I thought he was the one to blame for this terrible accident. But as they read from the Bible I sensed words of hope, of comfort and consultation, and victory and power to overcome my circumstances—if I would but put my trust and confidence in Jesus Christ who, incidentally, suffered a lot worse than me. So as I did that, I began to sense a freedom inside my heart, an uncanny ability to embrace the circumstances I found myself in. That Bible catapulted me into a journey with Jesus which grows each and every day.
Before your accident, what did you hope to be? What dreams did you have?
Believe it or not, I wanted to be a physiotherapist. Isn’t that something?
I ended up getting into physiotherapy except on the wrong end, so to speak.
What have you learnt then through all of this about God’s destiny for people? You wouldn’t want to say that this was God’s perfect will for you, but he has certainly used you in such an amazing way as a result.
Well, sometimes God’s will involves some pretty painful things. When you think of it, it was God’s will that Jesus go to the cross. It was part of the perfect plan of salvation, yet going to that cross involved murder, torture and injustice; it involved treason on behalf of Judas Iscariot. We look at that those things and we think, how can any of that be God’s will? Yet God permits what he hates to accomplish marvellous things that he loves. God did not take delight in my spinal cord injury, but nevertheless he allowed it. It was his will, and the long-range plan and purpose was that I might be drawn closer to my saviour. So even in my own life God has permitted what he hated, this quadriplegia, to produce something that he loves, and that is the image of his son in my life.
You would’ve wrestled with the whole ‘why hasn’t God healed me’ question too. I believe you even visited Kathryn Kuhlman, the well-known healer back in the early days.
Oh my goodness, I went to so many faith healers. I got anointed by oil, I confessed my sins, I did everything and anything. I followed every single scriptural injunction. I believed with a capital B. I had faith to the extent that I was calling my friends on the telephone and explaining to them that the next time they saw me they’d see me on my feet. I really was way out there on the limb with my confidence that Christ would heal me, but he didn’t. My feet and my fingers never got the message that my heart and head kept saying.
Christians sometimes want to erase suffering out of the dictionary. If you read the Bible you will see that it is often God’s best tool to make us more like Jesus. The choice is simply ours to yield to it and to allow him to use that suffering rather than complaining, avoiding it, escaping it, divorcing it—we’ve got all kinds of solutions for suffering except to embrace it as God’s will for our life. But when we do, what a difference his grace makes.
You and Christopher Reeve had your disability in common when Reeve was still with us. But he was an ardent supporter of embryonic stem cell research and cloning, while you’re an opponent of it, even though some would say that could be your cure. Why are you so concerned about embryonic stem cell research?
As a person with a disability believe me I watch very, very closely the advancements in any medical therapy for someone in my condition. And I’m here to tell you that the best kind of stem cell research is research using stem cells from your own adult tissue. Adult stem cell therapies are being developed right now—569 adult stem cell-related clinical trials going on in the United States, for coronary heart disease, multiple sclerosis, vascular disease, brain injury, Type 1 Diabetes, stroke, spinal cord injury, Huntington’s disease. Embryonic stem cell research hasn’t even come through with a successful proof of concept experiment in a rat. So, number one, I am very excited about stem cell research and I want to support stem cell research that is not only most promising but is most cost effective, most safe and most ethical.
Which brings me to my second point. I have been paralysed for almost forty years, Sheridan, and I would love to walk again, honestly I would. But not at any price. I think it is more important to bequeath to this world a moral compass. When people start killing human life in order to gain a cure, that kind of exploitation is very, very dangerous to people like me with disabilities because the weak and the vulnerable are always exposed in a society that thinks nothing of destroying human life. If we violate human embryos today we become callous, we become inured to transgressing the unborn child with a disability, then the infant with a disability, then the elderly. Already around the world they are labelling people who are in comas as ‘post-persons’ and infants born with severe disabilities as ‘pre-persons’. As a quadriplegic I don’t want to live in a world where the pharmaceutical and bio-tech industries set the moral agenda.
The nation of Germany—which, incidentally, is most curious because they have suffered through their error of wrong thinking with social eugenics and genetic engineering in the 1940s—is the nation setting the standard [in bioethics] now. They prohibit cloning; they strictly limit in-vitro fertilisation production to only two to three embryos and all of them must be implanted, not discarded. I think they have learned their lesson as a nation and I just wish that we would gain and glean from their example.
It could be argued that therapeutic cloning is potentially giving life to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities like yours, and therefore is good. What’s your response to that?
I don’t want human life to be killed in order to benefit me in this wheelchair. And so-called cures which might come out of stem cell research using human embryos is far, far down the road—perhaps twenty or thirty years from now—whereas right now we are experiencing some incredible medical treatments. I have a friend who had an adult stem cell therapy treatment done on her broken neck. She travelled to Portugal for the operation. Stem cells were scraped from her own nasal tissue and they were pressed into the injured area of her spinal cord, and now nine months later Lara can feel in her legs and she can take a few halting steps using crutches. That is nothing short of a miracle. Why it is that the media doesn’t talk about these amazing advancements is beyond me.
The other issue connected to this discussion is euthanasia. In some countries assisted suicide has been legalised; for other countries it remains a matter of debate. What do you say to somebody who is in such chronic pain they just want to die?
For one thing, when someone with a disability or a terminal disease is in that much pain and agony, I think the fundamental issue is not that they want to die but they want relief from pain. They don’t want to be socially isolated. They want to know that they are not alone in their affliction. When I was first injured—a quadriplegic lying in bed for a full year, hooked up to tubes and machines, paralysed and unable to even lift my head off the pillow for an entire year—believe me, I wanted to end my life too. But my problem back then was not my quadriplegia. It was my depression. There are cures for depression, so I think that we need to remember that the quick fix is not three grams of Phenobarbital in the veins. That’s not compassion.
Compassion is sitting by the bedside of a despairing person who is in pain and ascribing positive meaning to their situation. Treatment is educating doctors on how to prescribe good pain management. It’s donating to the hospice movement in your city or your community. Physician-assisted suicide is the epitome of abandonment to a person with a disability. I’m disabled, I’m in a wheelchair, I’m a quadriplegic—I’ve been there. But one is not better off dead than disabled. Better that we ascribed positive meaning to the pain. Keep that person from becoming socially isolated. Give them the psychological and social support they need and get them connected to caring Christians who will pray for them and come alongside and show them the prince of life, the resurrection of life—Jesus who has the words of life and is the way, the truth and the life. Our adversary the devil is a murderer, but Jesus can give grace, power and strength that will see anybody through the worst times of affliction.
Let’s make that Christian compassion, and not a bottle full of pills or a lethal injection.