Chair-bound Champion

Cancer and paralysis can't stop Tina Pedersen

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Everybody handles tragedy and the adversity it inevitably brings differently. Some follow the five stages of grief to the letter – straight from denial to acceptance with all the sadness, anger and bargaining in between.

Tina Pedersen, however, chooses to reel back and throw a haymaker right into adversity’s teeth.

“I’m really no more disabled than someone who has to wear glasses,” Pedersen said, despite being paralyzed below the waste. “Glasses are just cheaper than buying a wheelchair.”

That paralysis occurred due to a stroke that hit during what was intended to be a routine surgery to tweak her prosthetic bladder, which she had to get after her second bout with bladder cancer. The timing of such an incident, to many, might seem like insult to injury, but Pedersen views it in a more positive light.

“If I wasn't in surgery, that blood clot that settled in my spine could have went to my brain and I wouldn’t be here,” she said, explaining why she didn’t even consider bringing a suit against the hospital following the incident, as she said some suggested. “Let's count our small blessings instead of trying to sue everybody.”

For Pedersen, a native of Lincoln, becoming paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair is just another chapter in her life, which has already included losing her father and grandfather within a short period of time at young ages, a divorce from her first husband, two chapters of breast cancer and the aforementioned brushes with bladder cancer. She has survived each tragedy and has now fully dedicated herself to becoming an advocate for those with mechanical disabilities like herself.

“I am no different than when I was walking, I just do everything sitting down now,” she said. Her motto for her advocacy and for her life is now, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”

A pageantry for change

In a discussion with her doctor one day, Pedersen heard of the Ms. Wheelchair America competition, which is a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower and celebrate women confined to wheelchairs and provide them a platform with which to advocate for positive changes for people with disabilities.

Pedersen immediately got started on the process of entering the competition, which comprised months of webcam interviews and thousands of inquires on questionnaires about how she would make use of the title, as well as the crown and the sash that came along with it. She was successfully named Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island in February.

“Within the first week I was in with both Congressman and talking with everybody I possibly could,” Pedersen said. After meeting with Governor Gina Raimondo, she now sits on the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, where she is helping provide input into legislative changes to improve life for people with disabilities in the state.

The work of the Commission includes initiating a grant program to help property owners upgrade their housing units to be ADA-compliant, matching 50 percent of the costs up to $5,000. Pedersen personally views accessibility in businesses and restaurants to be of top priority in Rhode Island, reporting that despite a high percentage of Rhode Islanders being mechanically disabled in some way, only 54.5 percent of businesses are handicap-accessible.

"What happened to me can literally happen to anybody. Would you not want to still live as much of a normal life as you could and be involved and go to everything as best as you can? We shouldn’t be left out altogether because we don’t have access,” she said. “A restaurant can say they're accessible, but if I have to enter through the kitchen, that's not accessibility...I want to go in through the front door with my family."

Her work at the state level has already brought about more visible change, and you can see it for yourself in Providence this Saturday, as Pedersen will be launching with the first handicap-accessible boat to cruise the city's river during Water Fire.

However, promoting accessibility isn’t the extent of Pedersen’s advocacy – she is also an inspiration to survivors of cancer. She recently was a keynote speaker at the Northern Rhode Island Relay for Life in Smithfield. She led the Survivor Lap, which features all the participants who are battling or have survived cancer – and she did it with her trademark flair, donning her sash and crown and pageant waving to all the attendees.

“Life is a state of mind. It's all about how you look at things,” she said. “You're only on this planet for a very short blink of an eye. Make the best of it.”

Pedersen credits her two children and her husband as her angels who help keep her going throughout all the challenges life continues to throw at her. She is expecting her first paternal grandchild any day now. She will also be gunning for the national crown in the 2019 Ms. Wheelchair America competition, which is held in Grand Rapids, Mich. From July 30 to Aug. 5. It will be streamed live via Facebook from Aug 3-5 on the Ms. Wheelchair America Facebook page.

Pedersen says that she will never stop advocating for positive change until she breaths her final breath, and probably even afterwards.

“I’m not sure if Heaven is just not ready for me or if Hell is afraid I’ll take over,” she told to the gathering of cancer survivors and their friends and family members during Relay for Life. “So they leave me on Earth to make a difference.”

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