Nelda Wilson has always loved babies. As a nursing student in the 1950s, one of her favorite jobs was working as a student feeder at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“I was in nursing school at Akron General and we would walk over and spend 2 hours feeding the babies in the evenings,” she said. “I always gravitated towards the babies with spina bifida (a neural tube defect which leaves the spinal cord exposed outside the body), but the nurses would tell me not to get attached because most of them didn’t survive. At that time there were no surgical options to close their spines and most of them died from infections.”
After being hired at Akron Children’s in 1961, Wilson continued to ignore the advice of fellow nurses and showered extra love and affection on the babies with spina bifida.
“They deserved to be loved just like all the other babies,” she said.
After reading an article in a magazine about an unmarried nurse in Pennsylvania who had adopted a blind baby, Wilson started to consider whether she could do the same for a baby with spina bifida.
In 1969 the opportunity presented itself when 10-day-old Patrick Clifford was transferred to Akron Children’s so Dr. Clifford Boeckman could perform a relatively new spinal closure surgery on him.
Slated to go to the Hattie Larlham Center for Children with Disabilities after his surgery, Wilson felt compelled to save him from a life void of maternal love.
“He was so feisty,” Wilson said. “It was already a miracle he had survived 10 days. I just knew I had to try and adopt him.”
At the time, Wilson became the first single person in Summit County to adopt a child – paving the way for many others to follow in her footsteps.
She and Patrick made an unlikely family that defied modern day conventions of what families looked like.
That didn’t mean there weren’t some hurdles to overcome.
“When his first orthopedic doctor refused to brace him or allow for physical therapy until he was 5, I found another doctor,” Wilson said.
Wilson had a lot of things working in her favor including a father who built Patrick a standing board and a set of parallel bars for him to practice standing and walking at 13 months old.
Patrick went to preschool on a farm where he rode horses and played with animals – things even most typical kids don’t get the chance to do in preschool.
And what kid – typical or not – gets to sample the favorite homemade cookie of the sitting United States president?
“I took Patrick to the White House for a tour,” said Wilson. “It just so happened that the handicapped elevator came out in the White House kitchen. At the time they were baking President Ford’s favorite cookies and they gave us some to sample and take home.”
Wanting to expand her family for a number of years, Wilson learned of a girl with spina bifida who was living at Hattie Larlham. When she became available to adopt, Wilson jumped at the chance.
“Sarah was 3 ½ when she joined our family and she had many more medical problems than Patrick,” said Wilson. “But I was determined to give her as normal a life as I did her brother.”
Wilson believed her job as a mom was a natural extension of her job as a nurse.
“If I was going to intervene and save these children from a life of neglect, I was also going to try and give them the highest quality life I could,” she said.
Wilson’s push to always have her son and daughter treated normally has yielded 2 independent adults who now live in their own places, have jobs and hobbies that keep them busy.
Patrick, now 46, can be found on the amateur theater scene around town acting and auditioning, and 43-year-old Sarah has worked for Coleman Data Solutions as a data entry operator for 22 years.
In 1999, after 38 years of service to Akron Children’s, Wilson was forced to retire for health reasons. She volunteers at church and even keeps in touch with a former patient who helps her out around the house.
“I could never imagine working anywhere else,” Wilson said. “I loved the people at Akron Children’s and still go back annually for the retiree luncheon and the Holiday Tree Festival. It is the best place on Earth for children and their families.”
As part of our year-long anniversary celebration, we’re telling the story of Akron Children’s through the eyes of past and present employees, doctors, donors, volunteers and patient families. We encourage you to share your own memories and stories about us.
About Kathy Johnson
Kathy Johnson is a freelance writer, editor and public relations consultant with nearly 25 years of experience in the healthcare industry.