Despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 24, Juanita Harris, 79, never let that slow her down.
Harris, who now lives confined to a bed at the Veterans Memorial Lodge in Saanich, has had a full life and says her positive attitude is what has given her strength through all of her adversities, along with the support of her family.
Born on the Island, Harris went to school in Switzerland when her younger sister Carol, now 76, was born with serious health ailments.
Following her graduation in Switzerland, Harris says thanks to some family connections she was presented as a debutante to President Dwight D. Eisenhower which helped broaden her perspective on people in general, after spending much of her youth in the Swiss convent.
When she arrived back home on Vancouver Island, she wanted to see the other side of life as she felt she had grown up quite sheltered, so Harris joined the air force when she was in her early 20s. While in the air force, Harris who says she was very involved in sports, was recruited to compete in a gymnastics competition.
“What happened was there was a springboard, a box and a mat and I did a perfect jump,” she said, explaining her coach didn’t see the mat had moved from where she was supposed to land. Harris had just enough time to put her elbows up and cover her head before crashing into the cement floor six feet below her. Harris broke both of her elbows and her back, spending the next six months in a coma.
When Harris woke, she went to Montreal for further medical help where she was diagnosed with MS.
“[The doctor] told me, you either give up every morning or you fight,” she said. That’s exactly what Harris did, relearning the most basic tasks such as walking, talking, eating and going to the bathroom through the pain of dealing with her disease.
“You have to dig for that positive in your life when you’re down and bring yourself up,” she says.
And while Harris and Carol spent most of their childhoods on different continents, both credit the other for helping them get through life. The two share a room, looking out for one another the same way they always have throughout their lives.
“I wouldn’t allow her to get away with staying in bed for 24 hours,” says Carol, with a laugh. “My family didn’t pamper me either.”
The pair recently moved into the Lodge after sharing a home for more than 20 years in Sidney, on the same street where they grew up. They continue to support each other throughout their day to day life.
“We’re not from a wealthy family, but we are from a wealthy family where there’s love and understanding,” says Harris, holding hands with her younger sister.