The great automotive giant, Henry Ford, reported that his father often said to him, “There’s no such word as ‘can’t’!”

I doubt that my first grade Brownie Scout troop leader ever heard of Henry or his dad, but after the Pledge of Allegiance my little friends and I were required to chant “There’s no such word as can’t” at least 3 times. If someone slipped and said the deadly word, then she had to do the chant by herself.

Needless to say, I learned this concept at an early age. But it was watching this concept in action with people who had much more to overcome than I over the course of my life that really gave it a place in my heart.

Jen Bricker

I heard those words again recently when I watched a video of Jen Bricker, a beautiful young woman performing exquisite gymnastic exercises. A distinguished gymnastics champion, she had one other distinguishing feature: no legs. Her loving and plucky parents taught her to see bridges where others would see barriers.

It turns out that she discovered she had an older sister with two legs who was an Olympic Gold Medalist from the Atlanta Games in Gymnastics, Dominique Moceanu. They were separated when Bricker was abandoned at birth. Here are Bricker’s thoughts on what is possible:

Jeffy and Peter

“Lookout behind you! Here comes Jeffy!”

Whoever was walking down the hospital hallway moved quickly to hug the walls. We had all experienced the consequences of not getting out of the way of an adorable and careening two-year-old, belly down on a skateboard at the Canadian rehabilitation center where I had my first social work job.

Actually, skateboards hadn’t been invented yet. He rode a specially designed piece of wood with wheels on it so that Jeffy (not his real name), who had only flippers for arms and legs, could be mobile. And was he ever!

Jeffy, along with his buddy, seven-year-old Peter (also not his real name), were patients. These boys were the only children in Canada that were victims of the drug thalidomide prescribed for their mothers during pregnancy for morning sickness. Unknown by the women’s doctors, or anyone for that matter, was the fact that thalidomide taken during key times in pregnancy caused death or severe phocomelia, a term meaning malformation of the arms and/or legs.

In some ways, Jeffy, was the “lucky” one because he had two adoring parents who were committed to the idea that their son could do anything. On the other hand, Peter’s mother abandoned him at birth when she discovered that he had two good legs but no arms. Peter had some luck, too, at least for his first seven years. He was placed in a foster home with a woman who took the same approach as Jeffy’s parents: “You can do anything you want to do. There’s no such word as can’t.”

Both children learned to do amazing things with the help of some extraordinary people. Physical, occupational, and recreational therapists, as well as doctors, nurses, orderlies, housekeeping staff, volunteers and the people who were parenting them all helped Jeffy and Peter learn the power of “I can.”

My role was to help educate and support the children’s parents or caregivers who had the hardest job of all, and most importantly to help them keep believing that they could do it.

During the 6-month treatment period, each child faced and conquered multiple challenges. One problem, however, seemed to stump everyone. At age 7, Peter couldn’t go to school until he was able to empty his bladder by himself—a tough request, to say the least for a little boy with no arms.

Talk about teamwork in problem solving! All the staff in the hospital contributed ideas about how to help Peter gain independence in this one vital area. Finally, it was the Occupational Therapists who saved the day. Velcro hook and loop fasteners had just become available as a therapeutic tool and the O.T.’s went to work. They designed a stand that held a pole. The pole had on it a piece of Velcro with loops. The other half of the Velcro, the side with hooks was attached to a pair of pants at the waist. It took weeks of experimentation and refinement before the device, officially labeled “The Pee Pee Machine,” was considered fit for a trial run.

The big day had arrived. There must have been 15 of us who just happened to be in the hallway near the restroom. After Peter had gone in, a hush settled over the small crowd while we waited, collectively holding our breath. Several minutes passed. Then Peter appeared in the doorway with the biggest grin I have ever seen. We erupted in applause and cheering, and the speech therapist presented a cake.

There is a terribly sad side note to Peter’s story. Although he was able to go to school where he excelled, he had to do it without his beloved foster mom, the only mother he had ever known. Foster care, so the theory went, was temporary care until a permanent, adoptive home was found for the child. There was a rule then that foster parents could not adopt their foster children. The logic was that if they knew they couldn’t adopt, they wouldn’t fall in love with the children and find it so hard to be separated from them.

I’m pleased to report that this regulation changed many years ago. Today, Peter’s foster mother would have been encouraged to adopt. In addition, thalidomide is not ever given to pregnant women but today it is prescribed to treat some cancers and leprosy-related symptoms.

Thirty years later, I was watching a television news program about thalidomide. A handsome young lawyer was introduced and began to share his success story even though he had no arms. It was Peter. He was happily married and had two perfectly formed children.

His fatherly advice? “There’s no such word as can’t.”