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Getting to know Marie Ryan

by Darcy Rhyno

After contracting a rare viral illness that left her with severe paralysis and unable to walk for a decade, Marie Ryan ran for St. John’s City Council, eventually becoming deputy mayor. She led many initiatives, including the adoption of employment equity throughout the city and support for persons with disabilities and the homeless. In recognition of a lifetime working to improve the lives of marginalized people, Ryan was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, named to the province’s Volunteer Hall of Fame and most recently the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador. She continues her work on these issues at the St. John’s office of Goss Gilroy Inc., a management firm. Saltscapes spoke with Marie Ryan about abandoned dreams, cans of cookies and resurrection.

You started your career as a teacher.

The only thing I ever wanted to do was teach. I was inspired by Mary Comerford, my grade seven English teacher who travelled the world and brought history, language and every piece of her life into that classroom. I did a couple years teaching junior high. Then I got sick. My lifelong dream became no longer attainable.

What was the illness?

Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy or Guillain Barré Syndrome. When I got sick, they had never heard or seen anything like this east of Montreal. April 17, 1987 was the first symptom. I got married in July. By September I didn’t walk, and I didn’t work for ten years. I always talk about BC and AC—Before Chair and After Chair. Two years into my disease, I had respiratory arrest. I died, as my children say, and was resurrected.

How did you get by?

My husband at the time was in medical school. I was substituting, so we managed on the little money I had. My mother came in and helped for two years. Then we ended up on social assistance.

How did you recover?

Medication that at that point had only anecdotal results. It kicked my immune system back in. I was sitting at my kitchen table in March 1990, and I moved my leg. It was the most awesome moment. Later, I had two kids, which apparently stoked my immune system. I went to the Mayo Clinic because that’s where the god of my disease was.  He said, “You have to go back to your life.”

You put up quite a fight.

You either choose to live or you choose to live dying. I fought tooth and nail. My little 85-pound self was up at government saying, “But you can’t put me in an institution.” I was too expensive to keep at home because I needed 24-hour care. I hired a lawyer. I didn’t have much money, so I ended up with an articling student and paid with a can of cookies. 

Why did you decide to run for City Council?

Someone said we need more women on council. You should run. I laughed. Then I had another call from someone in the disability community who said, “Think of it this way. You would be an inspiration to children with disabilities.” My first term on council, I was in a chair. My second term, I was walking with a walker. By the end, I was walking with a cane.

What change would you most like to see?

There should be no homelessness in this country, no young people left sleeping on couches, no people with raging mental illness left to fend for themselves, no young girls having to pimp themselves out.

Why do you work so tirelessly for marginalized people?

Life isn’t fair, so people who have, have a responsibility for people who do not. I know what it’s like to be poor with a very serious disability and have no options, to be told you are of no value, that you should go die in an institution. I am a living example of what can happen if people are supported. It was the community that offered me options. Here I am 32 years later still annoying people. Everyone has a story. Look at me now, and you’d never know my story. My goal is to make sure people’s stories have better endings.   

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