Beryl Baker has turned her illness into a crusade

Beryl Baker isn’t like other daughters, or mothers, or grandmothers. When she was struck by polio as a child in 1954, doctors told her parents that if her fever broke, she would live; if it didn’t, she would die. It was that simple in 1954 and thousands of Canadian children were struck by a disease that became the great enemy of youngsters.

Beryl lived. Paralyzed, she was carried from bed to sofa to chair to bed. And in that experience came one of her life’s great lessons. “I was determined I’d walk again, but I also knew that while I couldn’t walk I had to have a really pleasant outlook on life. If I wasn’t pleasant with a a good sense of humour, I’d be lonely. So, I developed a sense of humour and a sunny disposition,” she recalls.

Before she started grade school, Beryl had mastered the power of positive thinking, and determination that has become her mantra through life.

As she regained mobility, she pushed through life, sports–any sports–being her proving ground. She went on to finish school, get married, have her own kids, and establish herself in a terrific career at Georgian College where, as liaison officer, she ‘sold’ students on Georgian. As her sales ability grew, she moved into financial products sales, building a clientele that was loyal and appreciative.

And then, suddenly, a dozen years ago, at age 40, Beryl didn’t feel so well. Her body hurt. She couldn’t get going in the morning. When she sought medical help, she maintained her lifelong silence about her polio; it was the disease she was taught never to mention. Her doctor put her on anti-depressants with its resultant weight gain. Ultimately, he told her to lose weight and work out… it nearly killed her.

Referral to a polio clinic gave Beryl her real diagnosis: post polio syndrome. Finally, she had an answer to her immobility and fatigue. The post polio syndrome doctor gave her a choice: choose family and living a life; choose work and limit your life. She left her sales career, postponed painkillers until she’s older, and settled in to a routine that has her in bed 16 hours a day.

Beryl’s upbeat attitude infected her children and grandchildren, and when her grand-daughter couldn’t understand why 52-year-old Nana can’t go to the gym, or ride a bike, Beryl took action.

And now, a four colour, 28-page children’s book, called Nana Needs a Nap, tells the story of Beryl’s life. In simple terms, with beautiful pictures drawn by Chris Barry and graphic design and print preparation by Terry Bodnar, Beryl tells a story that children and adults can understand. Without whining, with simple illustrations, Beryl shares how Nana’s legs give out, how she gets her words mixed up, how her face twitches, how she needs a nap. With humour, Nana’s challenges are portrayed in Beryl’s sunny way…

“When I go to visit Nana and she’s in bed, I just get a video and crawl up beside her, because she’ll watch whatever video I put in the machine. She’ll watch it over and over again or she’ll let me use some of her blankets to make a fort. She’ll even let me jump off her bed onto a pile of pillows and she’ll make the sounds if I want to pretend that the pillows are a train.”

When Beryl decided to share the impacts of post polio syndrome, she first wrote the manuscript. And then her friend Janet Taylor helped edit, correct tenses. She then sat with illustrator Chris Barry and designer Bodnar and, page by page, they planned the book. Friend Gerry Auger handled the printing, priced the project and 5000 copies came off the press at E.P. Printers in Markham, stitched in the bindery and delivered back to Barrie.

Locally, Nana Needs a Nap is sold through Barry Ward at North County Books, and in Orillia at the Manticore Book Shop.

The book is being sold also through Computer Elite, owned by Jodey and Dee Green, who staff the order desk in Oro Station. Purchase price? $14.98. If you buy at North County, it’s a $10 price tag.

And the result? The Post Polio people are thrilled that there’s such a clear message out there, and one told with laughter.

Beryl’s grandchildren now understand. So do her friends, to whom she’s made excuses for years.
“My friends are saying for the first time they understand how I’m living. They truly understand. And they know why. It’s very freeing,” says Beryl.

Nana was written clearly for big people as much as for little people. And it’s very likely not Beryl’s last book.

Who paid for all this? “God bless my husband,” said Beryl. She was quick to recognize that when her life changed, his did also. “He’s very gracious; but his life is very different today because of this.”

Life’s lessons. That same attitude learned by Beryl as a four-year-old is told subtly, gently, with humour and good grace, through these marvellous pages.

Thank you, Nana. Now, go take a nap!