Surgeries were a regular occurrence for Judy Coulombe during her childhood. As her bones failed to develop properly, her left leg wouldn’t stay straight.

But when she was 5 years old, circumstances changed. Her family was introduced to Shriners Hospital for Children in San Francisco.

“I never thought I was going to walk on that leg again,” she said. “They perform miracles.”

Coulombe’s family would eventually move to Astoria in 1955 and continue with Shriners Hospital in Portland. Shriners Hospitals provide specialty care to children with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate, regardless of the patients’ ability to pay.

Coulombe graduated from Astoria High School in 1962.

The now 69-year-old resident of Clatsop Care Center in Astoria made a trip out Saturday to support the organization that has meant so much to her. Coulombe attended Donkey Basketball at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds, a Shriners’ fundraising event.

“When I heard it was for Shriners, that made me want to go all the more,” said Coulombe.

Coulombe hollered and cheered as riders passed the ball and did their best to shoot. During halftime, she was able to get up close and pet one of the donkeys.

Shriners step in

Coulombe’s first surgery on her leg occurred at a Sacramento-area hospital, where her family had lived after moving from Minnesota. When she was a toddler, her left leg began to bow outward and it became shorter than her right leg.

“I’ve seen pictures of it and I don’t know how I walked on it,” Coulombe said. It caused her to have severe sideaches.

The hospital put her in a cast and had her use a lift to keep the legs at equal length. But the bones in her left leg started curving again. Her father heard from someone at work about the San Francisco Shriners Hospital. Coulombe stayed at the hospital for a month as X-rays were conducted and surgeons learned more about her condition.

Doctors eventually conducted two surgeries and fused vertebrae to correct her lower spine. Coulombe was also placed in a 20-pound body cast and stayed at the hospital for three months.

While she was at the hospital, Coulombe kept up her spirits by appreciating the flowers outside the hospital and talking with other patients. She was also eager to get out and receive a bicycle her parents had promised her. The doctors told her she would be able to ride a bike after the cast was removed.

“Because of them, I rode a bike,” she said.

After returning home from Shriners Hospital she looked for a bicycle with her parents. They didn’t have any luck at first, but one day, after returning from school, Coulombe was surprised to find one when she went out to do her chores.

“I went out in the back and there’s this blue Schwinn bike,” she said.

Working around the problems

Coulombe’s legs never fully developed after the surgeries, however, and she faced ongoing difficulties.

“People can be very cruel,” she said. “I was very short and they would point at me and call me names I don’t like.”

When the family moved to Astoria, Coulombe was taken to the Shriners Hospital at Northeast 82nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard in Portland for additional braces on her left leg and an operation. The hospital is now at Oregon Health & Science University.

As she got older, Coulombe was able to drive with adjustments to the pedals. She got her license when she turned 25 and bought her first car that same year. After taking a civil service exam, she went on to work various jobs at Tongue Point Job Corps for 13 years.

“She has somehow managed to keep her head up and moving through all the obstacles that have been put in front of her,” said Michelle Rogers, rehabilitation director with Consonus Healthcare at Clatsop Care Center.

Coulombe stayed at Clatsop Retirement Village for five years, but was moved to the care center last year because she needed increased care. She hasn’t been able to go outside the facility since arriving, Rogers said. When they mentioned the Donkey Basketball event to her, “her eyes lit up.” Rogers said they worked diligently to get her ready to attend the Shriners fundraiser.

“I’m just so thankful,” Coulombe said of Shriners. “If they (her parents) would have had to pay for all the surgery I had, they would have been in debt the rest of their lives.”

   

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