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Canada Paralyzed Dieppe veteran fought to get help for the disabled

My favourite story about the new man in my life - alas he is long dead, thus preserving my recent record for falling for the entirely unavailable - comes from Geoffrey Reaume's 2007 Lyndhurst, the story of the lodge-turned-rehabilitation centre for people with spinal-cord injuries.

He was John Gibbons Counsell, a Dieppe veteran who, with other members of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, fought for two hours on the beach that August morning in 1942 before he was shot in the back and suffered the paralyzing injury that nearly killed him.

By 1943, then-Lieutenant Counsell had returned to Canada, moved to Toronto and begun a lifetime of advocacy, first for disabled veterans but later for civilians too.

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He was, it turns out, a good friend of the late Edward Dunlop, another veteran of the Second World War - he was with the Queen's Own Rifles - who had been teaching soldiers how to toss grenades when one of his charges dropped one. Major Dunlop, as he then was, attempted to dispose of the grenade, but it exploded in his hands - causing him to lose several fingers but also blinding him.

(I have a connection with Major Dunlop, too, because he went on to become the founding president of the Toronto Sun, where I worked for years, even winning a couple of the in-house writing awards named after him. Like his friend Lt. Counsell and so many others of their remarkable generation, Major Dunlop also served his country in various ways for much of the rest of his life.) In any case, for all that these two were seriously capable guys, they also liked a good time.

And according to Mr. Reaume's account, shortly after Lt. Counsell moved to Toronto, he and Major Dunlop went out for a night on the town, the paralyzed guy persuading the blind one to drive his car.

A policeman stopped them for driving without their lights on, and asked Major Dunlop for his licence.

"Well, I don't have a license," Major Dunlop said. "I'm blind."

The officer ascertained that the vehicle was, in fact, Lt. Counsell's, and demanded his licence.

Nodding toward the back seat, he said, "Just a minute, it's in my wheelchair."

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Snorting with laughter, the two were arrested, towed to jail and spent the night in the joint, getting bailed out the next day.

I love the story because, in the simple ordinariness of two friends going out for a few pops and a bit of bad behaviour, was the very spirit that led to the formation of both the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (about the time of the First World War) and one war later, Lyndhurst - independence and a full life, and damn anyone who dared object.

At the time Lt. Counsell was shot, to say that the treatment of spinal-cord injuries was in its infancy would be overstating it: With life expectancy measured in a few years, often months, there virtually was no treatment.

As Mary Tremblay wrote in The Canadian Revolution in the Management of Spinal Cord Injury, a scholarly but readable article about Lt. Counsell, Dr. Harry Botterell and Dr. Al Jousse, the prevailing attitude "was to pray and die." Many doctors still expected patients to remain helpless and quiescent until they died.

By 1937, Dr. Botterell was finishing his training and undertook the treatment of three men with spinal-cord lesions, helped the trio survive and leave hospital, and got hooked. At the start of the war, he joined the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and helped establish the No. 1 Canadian Neurological Hospital at Basingstoke in England.

It was there he first met Lt. Counsell, newly injured, critically ill, and at first, Ms. Tremblay wrote, very depressed about his injury. Dr. Botterell encouraged Lt. Counsell, who was independently wealthy, to start up a spinal-cord-injury program in Canada.

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Lt. Counsell stubbornly took up the challenge, first getting himself up and running and then the broader cause.

The story of his new wheelchair illustrates this nicely: He could afford to buy one for himself and did, but in short order also convinced Veterans Affairs to provide wheelchairs for all returning veterans. And then, through the Canadian Paraplegic Association, which he with others helped found, Lt. Counsell fought to have the same chairs made available for civilians.

By the end of the war, Lt. Counsell and Drs. Botterell and Jousse organized a group of doctors, veterans and business, political and military leaders to "carry out their philosophy that individuals with spinal-cord injury could survive and return to live and work in the community" - this at a time when the standard of care, as Jack Higman, a Second World War veteran with paraplegia once said, was this: "They fed us, they changed the bed, they gave us enemas. That was about our life."

Lyndhurst is now kicking off a $1.5-million fundraising campaign. The money will go to research - the place is all about research, and I will write more of this another day - but it is all being done in John Counsell's magnificent name. A tiny portion of the funds will see a plaque and other signage in the lobby to commemorate him.

As David Thring, the chairman of the board of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, of which Lyndhurst is now a part, wrote me recently, "Often hospitals and other charities offer donors a chance to put their own names on labs, floors, even whole buildings. In this case, we're asking donors to contribute to commemorate a founder, who happened to be a soldier, and whose story is still an inspiration for those who suffer a life-altering injury or disease."

Much has changed at Lyndhurst, yet the indomitable spirit of Lt. Counsell endures.

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This week, I interviewed a young woman named Melissa Teehan who has been at Lyndhurst for almost four months and is soon due to go home to her hubby, two youngsters and the rest of her life.

Last July 13, a Friday, she was getting ready for work when she felt a nasty pain in her neck, then chest pain: She ended up in hospital, paralyzed thanks to a rare virus called transverse myelitis.

She is getting some small movements back in her legs, nothing yet in her arms, and while optimistic she will improve, she has to consider that she may not ever reclaim her former active life.

"But you give up," she said, "or you do everything you can to get better."

Like Lt. Counsell, and in part because of him, she's had lots of help and support; like him she's faced the long nights and the fears, which you do alone; and like him, she's worked like a dog to recover. I bet she would have gone driving with Major Dunlop too.

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