In this three-part series, The CJN is profiling mothers in the community who are thriving despite facing difficult challenges. These women provide inspiration, hope and support as they raise children with special needs.
Imagine the realization that your three precious babies have each been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, not knowing what the future will look like except that everything will be multiplied by three.
Meet Dana Florence. She is the mother of triplets Taylor, Brody and Cole, now nine years old, who were born more than three months premature and diagnosed with cerebral palsy by the age of two. Before becoming a mother, Florence was an elementary school teacher, but she soon became an advocate for her children – and for all others living with neurological disorders in Canada and around the world.
Several years ago, Florence founded Three to Be, a registered charity that supports children with neurological disorders. Since its inception, Three to Be has raised some $3 million, supporting innovative stem cell research, funding a robotic device to help children learn how to walk, educational therapies, and PAL, an online support system for parents and families. The triplets are bright Grade 3 students at a school for children with special needs. While Brody has a manual wheelchair, Taylor and Cole each have a powered chair, allowing newfound freedom. “All of a sudden they have independence and are able to go somewhere they want to go. It’s a whole different stage to deal with as a parent,” said Florence. It’s a big change for the children. “From feeding to going to the washroom to scratching their head if they have an itch, they rely so much on everyone around them to give them what they need and want,” said Florence.
“My kids are the most incredible gifts. They have been through so much in terms of the challenges they have faced. It feels like every few months we have a surgery or a procedure, and that is our normal.” Florence describes Brody as very smart, and a sensitive soul. “Brody can’t speak, so he communicates with smiles for “yes” and he purses his lips for “no.” A new iPad technology, now in its final stages, has been created for him by the Bloorview Research Institute.”
In 2015, Brody spent six months in the hospital, diagnosed with a broken neck from a thinning of a neck bone. “We can only imagine the excruciating pain with which he had been living,” said Florence. Taylor is a sweet and soft-spoken ‘girlie’ girl. “At home, Tay is loud and outgoing, but out in the world she is painfully shy. The thing with Tay is that she is so aware of the fact that she is different from other kids. She communicates it to me sometimes and can be emotional about it. It’s really hard and is something new for us. In the last year there have been a lot of emotional changes. They are growing more self-aware,” said Florence.
Cole is known as the joker in the family. He’s curious about the world and loves to read. Born deaf, he now has cochlear implants and can hear. “Cole has a mentality that anything is possible. He has dystonia and involuntary movements, and that is very challenging – yet he has figured out this really neat way to operate an iPad, allowing him to play video games, write text messages and [use] FaceTime,” Florence said. “He does it all, regardless of how many physical struggles he has going on.”
Florence is divorced, but she is getting remarried this summer to Jason Geall. “Life looks different from what I ever had imagined, but I am lucky. Jason loves us. He chose us!” she said, beaming from ear to ear. “These things that I get to experience by being their mother… a lot of time, people will ask, ‘How do you deal with that?’ But it is these moments that take my breath away. The amazing things [the children] overcame, and their spirit, and the way they look at life – it blows me away. I am in constant awe,” said Florence.