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Spina bifida didn’t stop a lifetime of sports for Kelly Murphy

Spina bifida didn’t stop a lifetime of sports for Kelly Murphy
Kelly Murphy, right, participating in a golf tournament at the Bay Course at the Kapalua Resort in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Courtesy: Kelly Murphy)

EL PASO, Texas (BVM) — Born in the early 1960s into a Navy family who moved every couple of years throughout her childhood, Kelly Murphy, at age 2, still wasn’t walking. One foot and leg appeared smaller than the other, but everything else was fine. Yet still she wouldn’t walk. After several evaluations, young Murphy was diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect that can have devastating effects.

As a kid, Murphy had dozens of operations, including foot reconstruction, spinal surgeries and bladder repair. But as she entered grade school, everything else about her was normal. For those who didn’t know, the only detection of something amiss was a slight limp.

Often the biggest hurdle for a military brat is moving from school-to-school and having to make new friends every year or two. The situation for Murphy was made even more challenging by the fact that her dad was a Naval recruiter not usually stationed near a military base, so the local kids weren’t as accustomed to, or often as accepting of, new students moving in.

Adjusting to a new town and a new house, learning your way around a new school amidst a sea of strange faces and unknown teachers is daunting and can be very difficult. Who do you sit with at lunch? Will anyone pick you for a team at recess or in gym class?

But in Murphy’s case, her spina bifida actually proved to be a bit of a help. Murphy, who “never considered myself to be different” had frequent surgeries which required lengthy amounts of time in a cast. Suddenly, the new kid with the cast was a valuable asset, a hot commodity on a kickball team, because that plaster cast sure can help the ball soar higher and further. And because she spent time after surgeries on crutches, her arms strengthened. And what a distinct advantage that became on the softball field. Although not the fastest of runners, she could hit the ball a country mile and compensate for her slower running.

“Kids can be mean, and games and sports were a way I was able to fit in, both as a new kid and someone who actually loved to play different sports,” Murphy shared. “God really provided me an avenue to be just a normal kid, and I’ve been very thankful for that my entire life.

“As a child I spent a fair amount of time in the hospital having had more than 20 various surgeries. In the wards, as they were called in the ‘60s and early ‘70s with a lot of kids in one big room, there were several others with spina bifida who were confined to a wheelchair. So, I knew early in life just how truly blessed I was.”

Grade school and middle school in several different states led to high school in Hawaii, where Murphy played trombone in the award-winning high school marching band. And then off to college where she earned a bachelors and a master’s degree.

Childhood games of kickball led to young adult softball leagues, bowling leagues and, now in her mid-50s, swimming and golf where her upper body strength enables her to drive the ball sometimes further than the men. In fact, in best-ball golf scrambles, the men have often scrambled to have Murphy on their team because she can drive the ball further than many, and she has the advantage of starting from the women’s tees.

As an adult, Murphy still has occasional surgeries for various spina bifida related issues. People who don’t know her — or even those who have known her for years — are often shocked to learn of her spina bifida. She ultimately built a successful career as a respected leader in the field of victim services in Indiana, Florida, Washington, DC and Texas.

But sports truly is a great equalizer and it was many games and teams in her childhood that kept her grounded as just a normal kid, and provided a route of acceptance from a birth defect that she could have allowed to become a true handicap.

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