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Gary McPherson: A stubborn hero who saw ability, not disability

Gary McPherson was a free spirit who, ironically, lived much of his life in an institution.

In October, 1955, during a holiday in Edmonton, the sporty nine-year-old boy from the Yukon fell ill and was rushed to hospital. He was one of countless thousands of children who contracted polio during an epidemic that swept North America.

Gary was left paralyzed, almost from head to toe. Worst of all, his diaphragm was paralyzed, leaving him unable to breathe.

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He underwent a tracheotomy and was confined to a dreaded iron lung, with little prospect of survival.

But survive he did.

After a few weeks in the isolation ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, Gary was transferred to ward 67 (the infamous polio ward) at the University of Alberta Hospital.

Through sheer stubbornness and determination, Gary freed himself from the iron lung but still required a ventilator to breathe.

The only lifeline the boys on the polio ward had to the outside world was the wireless technology of the day - radio and ham radio.

Mr. McPherson became a sports fanatic and an expert ham radio operator, a combination that would change his life. In 1968, there was a postal strike in Canada and, before fax, e-mail and BlackBerrys, that was a calamity.

The Canadian Wheelchair Games, slated for Edmonton, were threatened but they were able to rally the troops thanks to Mr. McPherson's ham radio skills. In the process, he began a lifelong friendship with wheelchair basketball coach Bob Steadward and, together, they would help transform wheelchair sport from a marginal rehabilitation activity into a worldwide sporting movement known as the Paralympics.

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By mastering a technique known as frog breathing (glossopharyngeal breathing), Mr. McPherson was able to wean himself off the respirator, at least during the day.

The new-found freedom allowed him to get out into the community. He was manager of the Northern Lights wheelchair basketball team and an active member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, where he honed his public speaking skills.

Mr. McPherson also caught the political bug. One day in 1971, he convinced his brother to push his wheelchair (there were no electric wheelchairs then) over to the campaign office of Don Getty. When he rolled out again, he was the office manager of the future premier.

Later, Mr. McPherson would become chair of the Premier's Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

He also became an adjunct professor in the school of physical activity at the University of Alberta.

Remember, he was still living in the hospital, and was on a ventilator every night. But Mr. McPherson was never one to complain.

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He never spoke of his disabilities, only of his abilities. And he never complained about his limitations, preferring to revel in his opportunities.

Mr. McPherson's autobiography, With Every Breath I Take, is an inspirational tale, tinged with wry humour. But, tellingly, the heart of the book consists of "practical suggestions on how we can care for ourselves" - because the polio survivor realized that healthy people too often take their health for granted.

Mr. McPherson had a love of technology that was rooted in the practical. He saw technology as a way of levelling the playing field. After all, he could only move his left hand and his left leg a little bit.

But that was enough to push himself around - at least until he got an electric chair - and, more importantly, it was enough to click a mouse.

Mr. McPherson was an early adopter of computers and started a successful data services company, one of his many entrepreneurial endeavours.

At the 1981 New Year's Eve party at the hospital, Mr. McPherson's life took a dramatic turn. There he met Valerie Kamitomo. They were married in 1988.

Mr. McPherson bought a home and moved out of the hospital - after a mere 34 years of institutional living. The couple had two children, Keiko and Jamie. (When Mr. McPherson spoke of his children, there were invariably raised eyebrows; he would smile ruefully and say "Yes, people with disabilities can procreate and enjoy sex.")

He shattered stereotypes. He also fought tirelessly for people with disabilities to be an integral part of the community and to be treated as full citizens and did so by living life to the fullest.

In recent years, Mr. McPherson combined his parallel interests in business, community development and sport as executive director of the Canadian Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in the School of Business at the University of Alberta and by playing a key role in the creation of the world-renowned Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement, also at the U of A. He was also named to the Order of Canada.

After 35 years as a volunteer and organizer for various political campaigns, in 2006, Mr. McPherson decided to throw his own hat in the ring, entering the leadership race for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party. But he bristled at the thought of being treated as a token candidate.

"I think I'm truly the different candidate," he said. "Not because I look different but because I think differently."

After all, his brain was his most powerful asset.

In April, Mr. McPherson, complaining of abdominal pain, visited the doctor. Tests revealed that he had cancer - inoperable liver cancer.

He spent his final weeks and days in a place he knew all too well - hospital. On May 8, at the age of 63, he died as he lived, surrounded by friends and family, and without an iota of regret or self-pity.

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