Meet Sue Thompson

The following is an interview with Sue Thompson, a member of our Spina Bifida community.  She is an inspiration and her interview is full of great insights.

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I was born in Pocatello, Idaho in 1949.  Within 2 weeks I was brought to SLC Primary Children’s Hospital and assigned to Dr. Paul Milligan. The diagnosis was: open spine, floating pelvis (no hip sockets), turned knees and club feet–anticipate wheelchair life. With surgery, socket shelves were created (one slipped but the body compensated) and I started walking with crutches and hip braces at age three. I went to handicapped school at Idaho University for the first year and then public school (before the laws).  I graduated Murray High in’67, and U of U in ’73. I worked at the Grand Central Stores office, the LDS Hospital Blood Bank office and started teaching choral music in Hillcrest Jr High School in ’78-’79, Olympus High in ’89-’90, back to Hillcrest Jr. in ’90-’99, and Mueller Park Jr. in 2000-’09. I am now retired at age 60 without handicap benefits.

Q: Tell us about your parents.  What influence did they have in your life?

A: My parents are Marvin and Leila Thompson.  Dad worked for the government Gun Plant in Pocatello until it closed; moved the family to Murray in 1960 so he could work for his brother at Thompson Electric as a clerk and then as a postal clerk until a stroke required early retirement (he had previously survived open heart surgery twice). Mother stayed home with 4 children slightly over a year apart each (I am the 3rd).  She and Dad traveled to SLC each summer to leave me for surgery, would go home and then come back to get me for the school year (there were 13 surgeries before 7th grade).  She worked physical exercises at home, took me swimming at the YMCA and hauled me around in a body cast when I could be home.  She petitioned 2 school districts in Pocatello and one in Murray to let me attend public school on the promise that she would come to school twice a day to take care of my incontinence needs.  She let me play, learn household chores and taught me to be independent even when her in-laws and neighbors criticized.  She always wanted me to do for myself.  I learned hand control driving to go to the U of U, moved into apartment life when I graduated and mom cried with me when an engagement for marriage didn’t go through (I gave back the ring).  Now that Dad has passed, each week I take her to lunch in my vehicle or visit at her apartment.  Because of her preparing me, I have taught school for 31 years, sat on state boards and national committees for music education and traveled the world singing with the Tabernacle Choir.  I will always and forever sing her praises and consider her my hero!

My dad has been a quiet, patient man in by life, always around but never taking over.  My first realization of his protective ‘hovering’ was during my junior high years. The family went to an event in the U of U event center.  I was intent on my feet and crutches staying out of the way of people along the narrow walk way.  I happened to glance up and noticed my dad about 4 people ahead of me clearing a path but not too close to interfere with my own working the crowd.  Another time the family was in Salt Lake City.  I parked across the street from where the family already had arrived.  I started across and about half way I nodded to my dad on the other corner.  In my distraction my feet slid forward and I sat right on the ground in the middle of the street.  I panicked, knowing that I couldn’t be seen by the driver when the light would change and wondering if he had seen me fall.  Before I even moved I felt hands behind and under my arms.  It was dad who lifted me up, set me on my feet and let me walk with him to the curb.

Q: Tell us more about how you learned to drive.

A: In high school the sophomore students take driver ed class training and then log a number of hours driving with the instructor before getting their temporary permit.  I did the class but not the driving.  At Grand Central Stores office where I worked, the owner’s son had hand controls on his fancy car and my dad talked to him to get the address to order.  It cost $300 to have it shipped.  Dad installed it on a Saturday when I was at work and when he came to pick me up asked if I wanted to drive home.  He actually taught me how to drive but the driver ed teacher lived in our neighborhood and logged the hours with me during the summer after I graduated from high school.  It is often said of me that the only time I am ‘fast’ is when behind the wheel (that goes for my scooter also).

Q: What has your mobility been like?

A: I remember walking with crutches and braces during elementary school, taking a long time to walk home with my friends and trying to run away from home (around the block with my sister trailing me).  I went on a camp hike balancing a backpack and part of the way a sleeping bag (to get the completion merit badge).  I figured out how to carry my cello at school and used a shoulder bag for books at the U of U and at LDS for specimens in the Pathology Lab and teaching work for school.  I balanced on snow and learned to ski until my shoulders weakened about 7 years ago.  Due to mobility concerns, I played ‘catch up’ when in a crowd or would leave early to get a head start.  You know the drill—“be very inventive in order to keep up with the world.”

Q: What contributed to your independence?

A: The 1st and greatest contributor to my Independence is the gift of a happy heart and personality.  The 2nd would be my parents quiet and persistent ‘helping’ me to become me and their love and confidence.

Q:  Tell us about your experiences teaching in the public schools.

A: In 1977 I had a desire to activate my license to teach after 5 years not being satisfied with other jobs.  In Murray District it was suggested that I could substitute since there were no openings currently available.  I did, three times:  first in a junior high English class where we wrote a description of our self as a car and then tried to guess who was who; second in a junior high Spanish class (I studied it 2 years at the university); third (the charm) in the choir classes at Murray High.  The music teacher fell ill after Thanksgiving, the district sought another substitute but the students openly rebelled with him so they called me.  For the following three weeks there were performances everyday at various locations for the Christmas season including singing at Temple Square and for the Murray City Chamber of Commerce and culminating with the school concert, which we honored the regular teacher who attended.  That experience proved to me and the district that I could do what needed to be done.  The next year they hired me and for 10 years I built curriculum and introduced students to experiences through performances and often had to ‘hold their hand’ during the teen growing process.

During this time I had a blind student with a lovely voice and a great interest in music through listening.  I found the need to help her appropriately socialize so she could work with her peers and I recommended to her and her parents equipment and resources for music. The laws for ‘mainstreaming’ were just being mandated and I was invited to give voice on a district committee since I had an opinion and experience from both the child and educator sides.

The district school nurse approached me one day with a request. She had a wheelchair high school student who was not learning nor taking any ownership for her care at school, would I talk to her.  It was decided that I could take her for a ride in my car (we went for ice cream).  By the time we returned to the school the nurse wasn’t at the curb so I got the wheelchair from the back of my car and sent her on her way.  The note later from the nurse said the girl had done a complete change.  She now had a vision of independence and possibilities for her future.

The Utah Music Educators Association (UMEA) has a state in-service conference every year in February with a Junior High Honor Choir that I would arrange for 8 of my students to participate.  One year the UMEA vice president in charge needed to leave the state mid-year and mid-term.  I was invited to complete his term for the
board and then was presented for election (and won) 3 times, ultimately serving for 7 years, setting up workshops and contacting people from across the U.S and being invited to conduct the Honor Choir when someone else was in charge; this led to my serving on a national committee for General Music curriculum.

My shoulders had started to be stressed and I was feeling pain. In 1998 I had tests and the doctor advised me that using my arms to walk with crutches for 50 years was wearing the bursa.  The only solution would be to get off them.  I went to Vocational Rehab.  They purchased the scooter and I purchased (and have maintained) the vehicle and lift so I could maintain my independence and still teach. (I borrowed from my dad once and paid back to buy a new scooter.)  I still maintain my own equipment.

Q: What advise do you have for parents of children with spina bifida?
I asked my mother, “If after all the effort do we ever arrive?”  She said, “No.”

I learned to work the journey, laugh and cry along the way and ultimately look back to marvel and give thanks for the people and things that aid in getting to the ‘top of each mountain’.

Dream in the real world.

As a teacher, I would:  plan a program, do the preparations and then step back in order to really enjoy the people and the real finished product.


2 Responses to “Meet Sue Thompson”
  1. Lucy says:

    Hi Sue,
    Thank you for sharing your story, welcome to our support group, we’re glad to have you on board.

  2. Shane Roe says:

    Hi Sue,

    Sorry, I just found this article, years after it was written, but maybe you’ll get this post still. Thanks for that story. I heard from your sister (at Payson Lakes campground), that you had written a book. I’m very interested in reading it and I know my mom would be as well. I’m going to try and find a copy, but I can’t remember what the title is.

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