Stepping Up to a Challenge

by Kristal Hardin on January 21, 2010 - 2:47pm

I felt brave the day I went to meet Thomas Young in early 2003. I knew nothing could stop this cub reporter from getting her interview. I had a good story to tell and I was going to do whatever it took to tell it.

As a correspondent for the De Queen Bee and De Queen Daily Citizen in southwestern Arkansas, I’m a late bloomer in the journalism field at 47 years of age. While my limb-girdle muscular dystrophy diagnosis isn’t new, asking if interviewees have steps into their homes is something I often forget to do. I’m still ambulatory but unable to climb stairs.

Thomas Young playing with Tigger the bobcat
Thomas Young with Tigger the bobcat

I had spoken with Young on the telephone several times and I was looking forward to meeting this Dr. Doolittle. Young is a rehabilitator of injured wildlife. He has raised 12 bears, releasing 10 back to the wild. He has rehabilitated more than 5,000 hawks, 2,000 owls, 18 bald eagles, nine golden eagles, and countless rabbits, squirrels and deer.

Young hoped that, with the exposure from an article in the paper, he could raise enough money to open his dream — a wildlife zoo on Rich Mountain near the Queen Wilhelmina Inn in Mena, Ark. I wanted to help him by producing a well-written article.

I was optimistic and ready for the story. After a 45-minute drive, I arrived at Young’s home. I sat in the van gathering my wits, preparing my thoughts, and took my first look around. There were three concrete steps with no handrail to the front porch.

I panicked, my heart sank, my legs said “no way,” and I planned for my escape. Too late. Here came this slender, 30-something young man with a ponytail and a huge smile. Young walked out that front door, down those steps and over to my van.

I smiled back hesitantly and preceded to give him my routine disability speech.

Thomas Young with Sheena, an 11-year-old mountain lion.
Thomas Young with Sheena, an 11-year-old mountain lion.

“I’m one of ‘Jerry’s kids.’ I have muscular dystrophy. And that means I can’t walk up your steps.” I asked rather sheepishly if we could conduct the interview in my van.

Young looked me in the eyes and said, “I need you to come in the house.” I again explained that it wouldn’t be possible for me to maneuver up the steps. Once again, he said in a firm voice that I needed to come in the house.

I started to get the creeps. I’d never met this man before, he lived off the beaten path, and now he insisted that I should come in his house!

I thought it over: If he wanted me in the house that badly then he’d have to do what it takes and I told him so. He said, “Just tell me what to do.”

So with cane in hand, I fearfully approached the steps. All I could think was, “This had better be worth it.”

I explained that he’d have to face me and I’d wrap my arms around his neck. He agreed to this. Then I said he’d have to steady me by wrapping his arms around my waist and also help with the lifting. He agreed again.

I was positive I weighed as much as he did. So if we both went down, it would be a nightmare getting back up. (Isn’t it amazing that people with MD have to think about how they’ll get up before they even fall?)

Kristal Hardin
Kristal Hardin

It proved to be a rather intimate slow dance up those steps with this persistent stranger.

We managed without mishap. I walked into the house and he rather cryptically pointed to the couch and asked me to sit down.

By this time I was thinking, “Good Lord, where is this going?” when around the corner bolted a bobcat. This year-old bobcat raced across the back of the couch and leaped into Young’s arms.

“This is what I wanted you to see,” he said, smiling. “Meet Tigger.”

Young is a very special man. Looking back, I wouldn’t have missed that interview if there had been a flight of stairs. The Associated Press picked up my article and Young opened his zoo that spring.

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