This columnist recently featured Joni Eareckson Tada, a 40-year survivor of spinal cord injury, who broke her neck while diving into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay in 1967. She uses an electric wheelchair, and has paralysis in all four limbs.
Tada is known for her national radio show, founding the faith-based disability organization Joni and Friends, her dozens of books including her autobiography, the movie Joni, and her colorful mouth art.
‘I’ve been taking weekly visits to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif., where people in the movie industry retire,’ said Tada in a telephone interview. The facility is a retirement community/hospital for people having worked steadily in movies and television for more than 20 years, including directors, actors, producers, even security guards.
DeForest Kelley and Johnny Weissmuller were two residents.
Said Tada, ‘When visiting people in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers, whether Christmas or not, I try to help them envision ways in which they can minister to their roommates or other people in the ward. The key to easing loneliness is to find that person who is in a more challenging position than yourself.’
So Tada regularly visits her friend and former actor Hal Riddle, now 86, at the Woodland Hills facility.
‘He was a supporting actor,’ said Tada. ‘You wouldn’t recognize him in any movie. He’s in a nursing home populated primarily by Jewish people, and (this holiday season) I have been picking out Hanukkah cards for him to give to people there.’
Riddle was close friends with actor Jack Lemmon, and was in countless television shows in bit roles, including The Waltons, Days of Our Lives, and Highway to Heaven, and was in three movies with Elvis.
‘People in hospitals or unfamiliar circumstances can identify with what God did at Christmas,’ said Tada. ‘In crude, unfamiliar circumstances Jesus was born. It probably wasn’t the place Joseph and Mary wanted to be, just like most people in hospitals or a residential facility don’t want to be there. But God understands. That gives people (with disabilities) like us a special closeness to the real meaning and event of Christmas.’
The National Spinal Cord Injury Association website claims more than 250,000 Americans, such as Joni Eareckson Tada, have a spinal cord injury. Of the injured, 82 percent are male, and 44 percent were in motor vehicle accidents.