Like many people, Valerie Whitman supports a charitable organization because it has helped someone close to her.
That’s why on April 20, she will be one of a dozen people running in the 124th Boston Marathon to raise funds and awareness for 50Legs, a nonprofit founded in Clearwater, Fla., by Steve Chamberland, a native of Dracut, Mass. The purpose of 50Legs is to assist amputees of all ages and their families in obtaining needed care and prosthetic limbs. Valerie’s daughter Olivia Peace, now 19, is one of its younger beneficiaries.
Valerie is the first to admit she’s crazy to sign up for a marathon. She has never done one before.
“But when I think about how hard it will be to run 26.2 miles, I remember all of the times Olivia was wheelchair-bound and in terrible pain,” says Valerie, 43, a Boston resident and vice president of senior living at LeadingResponse, based in Tampa, Fla.
Saving a young child
Olivia’s challenges began when she was five years old and hospitalized with what turned out to be a rare strep infection. As Valerie recalls, Boston Children’s Hospital had not seen a case like Olivia’s before, so initially, they didn’t know what it was or how to treat it. She would suffer cardiac arrest twice, followed by a stroke that left her left hand paralyzed.
Olivia remained on life support at Boston Children’s for five months, then transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where she spent two months learning how to eat, walk, and talk again. She finally went home Dec. 21, 2006, spending Christmas with her parents and brother Justis, now 23. Over time, the stroke and sepsis caused by Olivia’s immune response to the strep infection took its toll. Her agony was so great, she and her parents had no choice but to have her feet amputated when she was 14.
Defying the odds
Since then, Olivia has pushed forward. Her doctors, while encouraging, thought she might not be able to go back to school, much less walk again. But Olivia was determined to stroll through the doors on her first day – and she did.
At the ceremony for her high school graduating class in 2019, the teenager delivered a heartfelt speech about overcoming obstacles. (The video is a little shaky because a proud and emotional Valerie was crying as she filmed it.)
Now a freshman at Southern New Hampshire University, her mother’s graduate school alma mater, Olivia has endured over 80 surgeries to date. A psychology major, her goal is to become a child life specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and comfort kids who are ill and frightened, as she was.
Promoting the cause
Valerie credits the assistance 50Legs provided in securing prosthesis from a leading manufacturer, with Olivia’s ability to walk comfortably today. The organization has also offered her family much-needed emotional support. On the other hand, many amputees and their loved ones don’t know 50Legs exists. This is something Valerie Whitman wants to change.
“Olivia’s father and I were lucky to live in Boston with its many medical facilities, have excellent health insurance, and the ability to cover out-of-pocket costs. Yet it was difficult to find high-quality, comfortable prosthesis for our daughter,” she says.
(Attorney Roger Peace is a native of Lowell, Mass., and founder of the Peace Law Group in Lowell.)
“By raising funds for 50Legs, we will not only help less fortunate amputees receive comfortable prostheses, we will also raise awareness that while excellent prosthetic companies are out there, others need to do a better job for their patients – especially those with limited financial resources.”