By Tod Jones
Avoid machine-gun fire.
Good advice. Not advice Care Dressell Tuk ’76 was used to receiving, but as the western states coordinator of Wheels for the World, on a mission to deliver wheelchairs to war-torn Albania, it seemed appropriate to the situation.
"Machine-gun fire was all around," says the 45-year old occupational therapist of her two-week experience in the embattled area, which was covered by "NBC Nightly News." "Even though we recognized this was a dangerous situation, the need was greater than the risk. We learned how to duck."
Wheels for the World, an outreach of Joni and Friends (JAF) Ministries, collects and refurbishes used wheelchairs in the United States and Western Europe, then redistributes them. In 1998 almost 2,000 wheelchairs were delivered to Albania, Chile, China, Ghana, Poland and Romania from the U.S.
"First we bring the wheelchairs," says Tuk, a Spokane resident who coordinates drives to collect wheelchair donations throughout the western states and sends the chairs to be restored at selected prison centers or volunteer-staffed facilities in various U.S. cities. "Then we come back and help [the recipients of the wheelchairs] create their own restoration site." Similar to the adage of teaching people to feed themselves, rather than simply giving them food, Care (short for Carolyn), explains: "It’s not so much about the wheelchair. It’s about restoring lives—how can we help the family that’s been affected by this disability."
Although the very nature of the job implies working with people in desperate need, the trip to Albania was the first time Tuk has ever experienced anything resembling battle conditions. It was not, however, the first time she has been exposed to life-threatening situations. Throughout her life she’s proven over and again that she is able to turn those life-threatening experiences into life-affirming ones.
The loss of her mother to cancer, when Tuk was still in high school, eventually led to Tuk’s interest in occupational therapy. "When my mom had cancer, home health was in its infancy. I was taken out of school part-time to help. I can remember not having a vehicle to help people function."
While at Puget Sound, "Mary Curran, the dean of women suggested I try one of the OT courses," says Tuk, who recently received her M.Ed. from Boston’s Lesley College. "It just felt right. The whole purpose of occupational therapy is to help people maintain the highest sense of independence with integrity and dignity and with the sense of continuing to contribute. It was reaching out to people. I was hooked."
Then, in 1985, eight years after earning her OT degree and just shortly after emerging victorious from her own battles with cancer (there have been 10 separate bouts), Tuk was involved in a terrible auto accident. In traction for six months, Tuk’s injuries required a knee replacement, both shoulders rebuilt and substantial facial reconstruction.
The irony of being on the receiving end of occupational therapy is not lost on her.
I was director of the Chehalis Work Occupational Rehab Center at the time of my accident," says Tuk, who has just had her second knee replacement. "Now I had my own therapist taking me through the same procedures."
But it was the combination of the cancer fight and the accident that led Tuk and her husband Bill ’76, to seek out the JAF Ministries, first as participants in the JAF retreats, then as volunteers and ultimately as paid coordinators, helping to pioneer the Wheels for the World program.
Named for Joni and Friends, JAF is the disability outreach of Joni Eareckson Tada, an internationally known advocate for the disabled, herself paralyzed since 17.
"I saw the movie Joni’s Story back in 1977," says Tuk. "It was a deciding factor for me to pursue occupational therapy."
The organization gave Tuk the motivation to continue pushing herself in other directions as well. Despite her disabling injuries, Tuk has developed and implemented school-based therapy and home-community health programs in more than 25 districts in Washington and Oregon, and served as director of therapy for Providence Services in Centralia, Wash.
"I think in some ways my injuries give me credibility with the patients I work with," says Tuk. "They see my incisions. We share the same stories. We’re able to cry together. I know how hard it is. I think maybe that’s one of the gifts I’ve been allowed to share."
She’s been able to share that with her family as well. She and Bill have adopted two children, a daughter, Jamie, and a son, Tim. Although Tim initially displayed autism and mild symptoms of cerebral palsy, he is now in college, majoring in biochemistry and physics.
Her shoulders recently replaced again ("I set off detectors at the airport," she says) and facing the imminent amputation her leg ("bring it on, with a prosthesis I’ll be able to run in Bloomsday," an annual road race in Spokane) Tuk shrugs, somewhat painfully, at the notion that she is doing anything heroic.
"There are stories of courage across the country; mine is not that much different than everybody else’s. It just happened to get covered."
She credits Puget Sound with giving her and her family the encouragement and support to continue. "There aren’t a lot of universities that maintain the sense of family. UPS is always family. We can always call on each other. I’m grateful."
And Puget Sound and JAF, as well as her work in occupational therapy, have taught her what she considers the most valuable lesson of all.
"When I’m held accountable on that last day I want to be able to say my life made a difference."
More good advice.