Sheila Radziewicz wasn't expected to live more than a few days, let alone learn to walk, and talk... and now this! She gives credit to Shriners Hospitals for Children — the place that gave her a fighting chance.
Right from the start, Sheila Radziewicz was a miracle baby. The girl born 32 years ago with a genetic disorder — without arms or kneecaps — wasn't supposed to live more than a few days, or walk, or talk. And, she most definitely wasn't expected to earn a black belt in taekwondo, either, but Radziewicz has achieved all that and much, much more.
Radziewicz smiles often and easily. It is part of her charm and her engaging way of putting others at ease with her disability. She is used to the stares she sometimes gets, but she has also become adept at making those around her feel comfortable.
"I was not supposed to live. I was not supposed to talk or walk," says Radziewicz, who was born with TAR syndrome (Thrombocytopenia with Absent radius), a congenital birth defect. She is profoundly grateful she ended up in the care of Dr. Leon Krueger at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield, Mass. — a facility that offers free orthopedic care to children.
"Dr. Kreuger said 'I will be sure your daughter will walk someday.' I think I was 3 when my baby book says I took my first steps holding my daddy's hand ... I was always told by my mother, 'Nothing is impossible. Impossible just takes a little longer.''"
By the time she was nine, she had had ten major surgeries at Shriners to correct her inward rotated ankles and move her hamstrings to shore up legs that buckled frequently for lack of kneecaps. "I have scars on my legs. I found it amusing to tell the boys that I had better scars than them," says Radziewicz. "I was not a child who cried. I was happy but some of it was a defense mechanism. When people made fun of me, I'd smile or walk away because I thought if you don't acknowledge it, they're more likely to stop. It was a coping mechanism."
The youngest of three girls growing up in Malden, Mass., her parents Mary, a stay-at-home mom, and John, a computer technician, sought to have her life be as normal as possible. She enrolled in roller skating lessons but hated it. She took up horseback riding and accidentally sent her horse into a cantor over a jump. "It was exhilarating and scary all at once," she recalls. She played soccer in elementary and junior high school but gave it up by high school. "At the high school level, it was too intense for me," she explains.
She always attempted to have others see her — and others with disabilities — as normal too. While still in college, she worked at a Girls, Inc. program in Lynn, Mass. as a counselor where she helped implement a disability awareness program, teaching 90 percent of the girls enrolled there sign language.
"When I worked there, there was one girl who was six and who cried when I met her for the first time. Three years later, she clung to me and cried when I was leaving. This was the same child who saw me, freaked out, cried and ran the other way when she first met me," says Radziewicz.
After getting her undergraduate degree in government in 2000 at Suffolk University in Boston, she began graduate school in criminal justice at Northern Arizona University in 2001 and was living in Flagstaff when she happened upon a flyer for a martial arts school and saw it as a way to both stay fit and relieve the stress of studying while working full-time. Her younger male cousin had first introduced her to martial arts when they were children and she'd been intrigued by the discipline ever since. The school she found in Flagstaff was accepting of her and her disability.
"The instructor was just really nice, the atmosphere was low-key and no judgments. When there were things that seemed impossible for me to do, they'd figure out a way. My instructor was always on the ground with his hands behind his back trying to figure out how to do it without hands," she says.
When she returned to the Boston area after graduation, she found a job as a legal advocate coordinator for a domestic violence organization. She also searched for another martial arts school where she could continue to develop her skills and three and a half years ago, she happened upon Bruce McCorry's Martial Arts in Peabody, Mass.
"She called and said she had no arms. I booked an appointment with her and she trotted in, held out her arm, we shook hands and she went right into class. She was looking for a school in the area where she felt comfortable and she knew this was the school for her because no one treated her differently. There she is just like anyone else," says Sandra LaRosa, a co-owner. "She does not let her disability get in the way of anything.... The thing that stands out about Sheila is her personality, her positive attitude. The moment she came through the door, her confidence was obvious. She came in like nothing was wrong."
Not all of it has been easy for Radzciewiz. "Weapons are a little bit of challenge. I was excited to work with nunchucks and I wore a helmet for awhile because I kept beating myself on the head," says Radzciewicz, chuckling.
Radziewicz has been a dedicated student, taking two classes a week and also volunteering to work with children. "She's a very hard working girl. When she sets her mind to do something she goes and does it. She's a warrior at life," says McCorry.
The latest test of her ability, focus, perseverance and will was the black belt test she took along with nine other students which required a series of forms, punches, kicks and on her first try, broke three one-inch thick boards with a roundhouse kick and another board with a fist punch, among other feats. She was one of two students who earned a black belt.
"It's not just punches and kicking, says Radziewicz. "It's mind, body and spirit and it's about respect, discipline and self esteem and being there for others. It's a way of life."
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Photo by Mark Lorenz of the Salem News and courtesy of Sheila Radziewicz.
Story by Anne Driscoll. Originally published at Tonic