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The Inspiration Behind Mobility Towel

RISE AND SHINE:  The Inspiration Behind Mobility Towel

“Rise and Shine! It’s going to be a glorious day.” As we grew up, our mother’s cheery greeting roused my two sleepy sisters and me out of bed each morning. She’d whisk into our bedrooms, whip open the blinds, and, with the sun shining in, enthusiastically proclaim in her unmistakable southern drawl, “Rise and Shine! It’s going to be a glorious day.”  As children, especially as teenagers, we generally failed to appreciate these chipper wake-up calls. Now, as an adult, I would give almost anything to have her pop into my room and hear her lilting “Rise and Shine” again.  Mom lived every day of her life as the “glorious day” she believed it would be.  Regrettably, her days were too few. She passed away several years ago leaving behind a grieving, but grateful, family. We were blessed to have experienced her unconditional love, contagious enthusiasm, and unparalled optimism, as were countless others who were touched by her spirit and inspired by her strength. She never knew a stranger and many strangers became treasured friends.

Mom (Kay “Happy” Vulevich Quinn) was a “southern belle” born and raised in Mobile, Alabama. She radiated genuine warmth and hospitality, underscored by deep inner resolve and integrity, and enhanced by her delightful southern accent and wonderful sense of humor.  She “dared” to marry a “Yankee” from north of the Mason-Dixon line (actually Wisconsin) who was somewhat stern and direct in his mannerisms, had a noticeably strange accent, was unfamiliar with comfort food, and had an aversion to hot weather. Despite these perceived shortcomings, they married, and moved from her beloved Mobile to New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. They finally settled in St. Louis, Missouri, and in later years, after my father’s death, she moved to Pensacola, Florida to be near her siblings. Not only did she blossom and thrive wherever she lived, she planted some of her southern roots wherever she was. Over the years, new friends and neighbors across the country became extended family who benefited from her positive outlook and upbeat personality.  While known as “Kay” most of her life, her eldest grandson, almost two years old at the time, started calling her “Happy.”  It didn’t sound like “Kay” or any derivatives of “Grandma,” but with the unerring intuition and certainty of a toddler, he christened her “Happy” and going forward, she became “Happy” to all of us.

I share the story of how Happy got her name because she had many reasons to be unhappy, resentful, and even bitter.  Although she may have been blessed with a sunny disposition from birth, how she remained happy throughout a life fraught with serious and debilitating health issues continues to intrigue and astound us. One day when she was 18 years old, she was out fishing and water skiing.  The next day she was sick, diagnosed with rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease.  She was confined to bed for a year.  When she was finally able to get up, she fell and developed thrombosis, a blood clot, and was again confined to bed.  Shortly after, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks the joints.  It plagued her throughout her life.  Her fingers were deformed, her wrists were fused and unable to bend, and her pain was unrelenting.  So were her positive outlook and her unshakable faith in God. Her determination to live a fulfilling life and to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others overrode the severe physical challenges she faced, including joint replacement surgery and a brain aneurysm. Not only did she raise three energetic daughters, frequently on her own as my dad’s job required a lot of travel for weeks at a time, she was active in her church, and a tireless volunteer for numerous causes. Over time though, it became apparent that simple tasks were becoming more difficult, and I was constantly on the lookout for assistive devices to make her life easier and help preserve some freedom and independence. As I observed her struggles, I even began tinkering with some inventions of my own, tailored to her needs. She continued to maintain her indomitable spirit (which needed no tinkering) always looking for the best in every situation, even when it seemed hard to find. 

Late in September 2007, Happy was diagnosed with stage 1 Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer, and chose to fight yet another health battle with all she had. Despite the immediate fear accompanying such a diagnosis, we were very optimistic with the initial prognosis and treatment plan.  However, in less than two weeks she was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure, put on dialysis, and told that her cancer was stage 4.  Even with that devastating news, her faith and determination were unwavering and prayer was a constant companion and source of comfort. As she grew progressively weaker, she needed someone with her most of the time and our family took turns spending time with her. I spent Thanksgiving week with her, and we had a number of blessed, but bittersweet, conversations about love, life, and death. Early one morning she announced that she had made a decision. She stated that she was going to name each day. “What does that even mean?” I thought to myself, somewhat apprehensively.  She went on to proclaim, “Today, I’m naming REJOICE.”  From that day, November 20, 2007 through February 1, 2008, she named each day with a positive word or phrase. These became known to her family and friends as “Happy’s Words of the Day.” Although she was too weak to continue naming them after that point, we continue to draw strength (and an occasional chuckle) from the days she did name that late fall and early winter to our present days throughout the year. 

 Happy’s Words of the Day...

Despite the untold suffering she experienced, especially in her final months, Happy’s sense of humor never wavered, and she kept us and many of the hospital medical staff on their toes.  One evening I was with her after her stem cell transplant. She was weak and had trouble getting out of bed, needing to roll on her side first, then push herself up to a sitting position using the bed rail. This particular instance the bed rail was not locked in position and when it went down, she did too, falling to the floor. I couldn’t reach her in time but fortunately she wasn’t seriously hurt.  I, though, was visibly shaken. After getting her back into bed, and trying to get my pulse rate back to normal, she quipped, “What, you didn’t want to play hide and seek with me today?”

Doctors and nurses were treated to her comedic talents too.  One of her more memorable exchanges, perhaps bordering on risqué, was with a nursing assistant.  For whatever reasons, Happy had been moved from one floor to another and was now on her fourth relocation.  When a nursing assistant entered her room she remarked, “I’ve seen you in rooms on the 7900, 5900, 6900 floors, and now you’re back on 5900.  What’s going on here?” Happy’s snappy reply, “Well, I sleep around you know!”

In general, Happy was a very cooperative and compliant patient, but despite her easy-going demeanor, she was also a person who firmly adhered to schedules and deadlines and wasn’t afraid to take matters into her own hands. She was on a ventilator for six days, when during the doctors’ evening rounds on the sixth night they said they wanted to remove the ventilator the next day.  She apparently set her own countdown clock as to when the ventilator would be removed.  Well, when they didn’t appear early enough in the morning for her, she pulled it out herself, not an easy feat, and one that resulted in noisy alarms to alert the medical staff.  Needless to say, several doctors came in response, and after some conferral, jokingly gave her trouble about her actions.  As she righteously believed she had done the job they were supposed to do, with an introductory “Ahem,” she spoke up clearly and asked them to whom she should send the bill!

Overall, she was well-known throughout the hospital and endeared herself to the staff. More than one made it a habit to visit with her outside working hours. But, at last, no amount of medical science, humor, love and support, or gratitude and determination, were enough. Kay “Happy” Vulevich Quinn passed away on September 28, 2008 at the young age of 69. She was buried in Mobile on what would have been her 70th birthday, October 14th.  Our “southern belle” lived the days given to her as a “steel magnolia,” that rare combination of amazing strength and fortitude coupled with extraordinary gentleness and peace. And, while appreciating all of her blessings, instead of complaining about all of her trials, she showed so many of us what really matters in life.  She regularly asked herself what she was supposed to learn from one experience or another.  I’m not sure she realized how much her family, friends, and many acquaintances learned from her. She was an extraordinary teacher who didn’t have to lecture; her actions spoke louder than any words ever could.

Lessons learned from Happy:

  1. Everyone matters; everyone has something to contribute and everyone has a story – take the time to listen.
  2. Be present in the moment; don’t waste that moment wishing you were somewhere else or doing something else.
  3. There is positive to be found in every situation.  You get what you are looking for so you might as well look for the positive.
  4. There are lessons to learn in every situation.
  5. Take the time to pray.
  6. Be grateful for what you have and what you can do; count your blessings.
  7. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  8. Always let people know how much you love them.
  9. Be spontaneous.
  10. If you make someone else happy, you’ll be twice as happy.

As optimistic and upbeat as Happy was, with her unending focus on the positive, she was not a one-dimensional “Pollyanna” who blithely sailed through life. We believe that she must have had times of fear and despair. We are convinced, though, that she didn’t deny or gloss over any negative feelings and emotions as there was another “lesson learned” from her when my sisters and I were growing up. Actually, this one was quite direct and may have fallen into the rare “lecture” category, but it stuck. Whenever we experienced the inevitable disappointments, hurts, and seeming injustices of childhood, she validated our feelings and gave us time and space to process them. However, if we wailed and wallowed too long, she lovingly admonished us with the command, “It’s time to get off the pity pot; you’re starting to get a ring around your butt!”  It was a different kind of “wake-up” call that made us take ownership and answer the problem-solving question, “What are you going to do about it?” Her deep faith and daily Morning Prayer and meditation gave her the strength and perspective to face the lifelong challenges she had. She, in turn, gave us strength and perspective to face our own.

Mobility Towel was conceived several years ago.  It has been a long labor, but a labor of love, to get to the final product.  The idea was born from a need.  My Mom’s rheumatoid arthritis caused her mobility challenges.  One day she asked if I would dry her legs after she got out of the shower as she had difficulty doing this herself.  I knew it took a lot for her to ask, especially with something so personal that she would prefer to do herself.  That night, I came up with the idea of a weighted towel that would allow her to dry herself, and the prototype of Mobility Towel ultimately gave her back her freedom, independence and dignity. I was grateful for the opportunity to make her life a little more pleasant, and I discovered how right she was when she said, “If you make someone else happy, you’ll be twice as happy.” I was. 

My wish for Mobility Towel today is that many who struggle with temporary or permanent physical limitations will, like Happy, find Mobility Towel a practical aid to maintain or restore a degree of freedom, independence, dignity, and yes, happiness. My hope is that learning more about my Mom, and the story behind Mobility Towel, will also nurture and lift up many spirits. “Rise and Shine!”