'˜Even with spina bifida you can still have a full life'

When Fiona Sanderson was born with severe spina bifida, doctors told her parents to let her die as she wouldn't live past a week.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 8th February 2016, 10:14 am
Updated Monday, 8th February 2016, 11:24 am
Fiona (right) with her sister Katrina.
Fiona (right) with her sister Katrina.

Medics also predicted Fiona would never walk, never get a job, never get married and never have children.Fiona Sanderson tells AASMA DAY how she silenced the voices of doom by achieving all these and more.

Fiona Sanderson can vividly recall walking through the street as a little girl of seven almost hunched double because of her spina bifida.

As she walked past a butcher’s shop, a little girl took one look at her before letting out a shrill scream shouting: ‘Mummy, mummy, there’s a monster!’

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Fiona Sanderson on her 60th birthday party with sisters Lorraine, Katrina and Shirley at Escape in Kirkham.

Fiona, now 60, who lives in Ashton, Preston, admits: “It still hurts me now thinking about it.”

On another occasion, at the age of 17, Fiona was interviewed for a secretarial job at a cement factory and told she had got the job.

But as soon as Fiona mentioned she had spina bifida, a condition where the spine doesn’t develop properly, the interview took a nasty turn.

Fiona recalls: “I told the man who interviewed me I had spina bifida just in case I needed to go for hospital appointments.

Fiona Sanderson with her parents Dorothy and Gerrard Bateson seated, Fiona is on her mum's knee. Her deceased sister Rose is on her dad's knee. Older sister Linda is knelt in front and surviving eldest sister Shirley is standing next to her dad.

“His manner completely changed. He grabbed me by the arm and marched me to the door saying: ‘Get out! We don’t want your kind in here.’

“I ran home to my bedroom and cried my eyes out.”

These incidents show the ignorance and cruelty once rife in society when it came to people with disabilities.

Thankfully, things have improved dramatically since then, but even when faced with adversities like this, Fiona refused to let things get her down.

Fiona Sanderson on her 60th birthday party with sisters Lorraine, Katrina and Shirley at Escape in Kirkham.

She has lived a full life and proved the doomsayers who predicted she wouldn’t even live for a week wrong.

Fiona was born to cotton mill worker parents Dorothy and Gerard Bateson in 1956 in Bamber Bridge near Preston.

Fiona says: “My mum told how while she was pregnant with me, she felt faint and experienced a few falls.

“On one occasion, she fell forwards into the fire and my dad saved her from going into the flames.

Fiona Sanderson with her parents Dorothy and Gerrard Bateson seated, Fiona is on her mum's knee. Her deceased sister Rose is on her dad's knee. Older sister Linda is knelt in front and surviving eldest sister Shirley is standing next to her dad.

“On another occasion, she felt faint and fell down the stairs.

“She said from that moment on, she knew there was something wrong with the pregnancy. When I was born with spina bifida, she said: ‘I knew it, I knew there was something wrong.’”

Fiona was born with the most severe form of spina bifida, a condition where the spine does not develop properly leaving a gap.

Katrina Howell, 49, Fiona’s sister who lives in Kirkham, explains: “As Fiona had the worst form of spina bifida with a curved spinal cord, doctors knew straight away she had the condition.

“Doctors told our parents Fiona would not survive and to let her die.

“They advised not feeding her and letting her die as they felt it would be kinder.

“They said Fiona would not live past a week and 
certainly not past the age of one.

“However, my mum and dad refused to listen to the doctors and took Fiona home and looked after her.

“Doctors kept changing their predictions and telling our parents Fiona wouldn’t live until five, then 10, then 16, then 18, then 21, then 40.

“This kept going on until she was 50.

“Doctors predicted Fiona would never walk and that if she lived long enough she wouldn’t get a job; would never get married or have children.

“However, Fiona has achieved everything they said she wouldn’t and much more besides.”

Laughing, Fiona says: “I am a very stubborn person and if someone says I can’t do something, then by golly I will do it.”

Fiona is one of eight siblings but two of her sisters have passed away and her parents are now deceased.

Despite the gloomy prediction of doctors, Fiona did walk, although she was a late walker around the age of two or three.

However, she crawled everywhere before than and showed a mischievous streak from a young age.

Smiling, Fiona says: “My mum told she once put me in a wooden playpen around the age of six months.

“I managed to get out and opened a sideboard where my parents had put Easter eggs belonging to all my siblings and I took a bite out of each of them.”

Katrina adds: “Fiona is still a big chocolate lover to this day!”

Fiona underwent several operations to try and correct her spina bifida including a big operation at the age of eight.

Even at such a young age, Fiona remembers the love and support of her parents was astounding.

She recalls: “The night I had my big operation, my mum sat with me all night holding my hand.

“Doctors told how I couldn’t turn over as the pressure could kill me. When I woke up wanting to turn over, my mum whispered: ‘Just a little bit longer.’

“My mum told me while I was in hospital, I gave one of the nurses a real shock by walking to a chair from the bed.

“When they asked me how and why I’d done it, apparently I told them: ‘Everyone said I wouldn’t be able to walk, so I wanted to see if I could.’”

About her condition, Fiona explains: “My spinal cord is curved and then tapers in.

“All the nerve endings are open instead of being sealed.

“They tried to operate to separate the nerve endings, but it didn’t work.

“I have a lump on the bottom of my back and the condition does cause a lot of pain.

“Other symptoms include a weak bladder and I don’t have much feeling below the waist.

“This means I can bump and hurt myself without realising it.

“About 30 years ago, I had to have five toes amputated as I got an infection on my feet but because of the lack of feeling, I didn’t realise.

“By the time I realised, gangrene had set in and they had to amputate my toes.”

Fiona, who walks on the sides of her feet, only started school late as at first, her mum couldn’t find a school willing to take her as they were worried about her banging herself and getting injured at school.

Fiona had a home tutor until the age of 10 and then went to Brownedge St Mary’s followed by Moor Park Open Air Special School.

Fiona says: “I absolutely loved school and there were a couple of teachers who really inspired me. Like my family, they taught me to live my life to the full and not let anyone put me down.”

After leaving school, Fiona was offered a place at Lancaster University to study English, but turned it down as her disablement services officer felt she wouldn’t be able to manage the travelling.

Fiona then went to a rehabilitation centre to see what kind of work would be suitable for her.

It was here she met her husband - now ex-husband - and father of her son.

Fiona, who worked in debt recovery and customer services at Great Universal, says: “I met my husband in 1979 and we got married six months later.

“We got divorced three years after that.”

Fiona was thrilled when she discovered she was pregnant, but her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage in 1981. However, she became pregnant again and had son Martin in 1982.

Fiona remembers: “I was really happy when I found I was pregnant, but doctors and nurses kept pushing me to have an amniocentesis to see if my baby also had spina bifida.

“However, I told them I didn’t want to risk losing my baby by having the test.

“I told them I had spina bifida myself and knew I could do almost everything I wanted.”

Fiona’s son Martin, is now 33 and Fiona is also a doting grandmother to Sophie, three. Neither Martin nor Sophie have spina bifida.

Sister Katrina, who has a mild form of spina bifida as well as fibromyalgia and arthritis, has two children, David, 25 and Bethany, 23.

She says: “When I had my children, there was a high risk of losing the baby if you had an amniocentesis during pregnancy.

“Personally, I chose not to have it done as I knew I would love my child whatever and in those days, the expectation was that if the child was disabled, you would have an abortion.”

Fiona and Katrina hope Fiona’s story will inspire others, particularly parents who have just had a child with a disability or are pregnant with a disabled child.

Katrina, who worked as a dinner lady in school kitchens across Kirkham, Wesham and Freckleton, says: “Fiona is an inspiration to everyone she meets and has been through 
so much in her life, but is always happy.

“I think it is a testament to my mum and dad and 
Fiona herself as to how well she has done.

“When Fiona was a child, my mum and dad had no help and had to do everything themselves.

“We grew up below the poverty line but our parents gave everything to their children and went hungry themselves.”

Fiona was featured in the Lancashire Evening Post years ago when she nominated her mother Dorothy for a Best Mother award.

Despite battling many illnesses, Fiona has remained strong-willed and has helped others by raising money for charity.

Fiona, who has worked at a newsagents, helped deliver papers and volunteered at charity shops over the years, has a strong faith and has visited Lourdes a few times.

She says: “My miracles of Lourdes were my son Martin and my grand-daughter Sophie.”

When asked if there is anything she has wanted in life that her condition has prevented her doing, Fiona muses: “Ice-skating and rollerskating. I would have loved to have done those.”

Fiona’s advice to others given gloomy predictions about disabilities is: “Never give up.”

Fiona, who recently celebrated her 60th birthday, says: “Even if you do have spina bifida, you can live with it and still have a full life.

“Family are very important and my parents and siblings always believed in me.

“It is also important to have belief in yourself.”