At first, it seemed as if Madison Wilson-Walker just had the flu. But an unusual rash accompanied her symptoms, causing concern and sending her parents rushing to the hospital.
Wilson-Walker was only 3 years old at the time. Once at the hospital, she was diagnosed with meningococcal disease – an illness that cost her both legs and left blood spots on her brain.
Today, the 19-year-old first-year King’s University College student is an accomplished para-athlete. She’s also an aspiring social worker and, as of late, a model in a photo collection by famed photographer Anne Geddes, who recently started an international campaign to raise awareness of meningococcal disease. Her campaign is a series of photographs featuring athlete models affected by the illness posing with healthy babies – the subjects she is most known for.
“Since the symptoms are so similar to an everyday flu, a lot of people might not know (to recognize the disease). A lot of people don’t know about meningococcal disease, about meningitis (a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the disease) at all. They should know about it. They should know there is a vaccine. Get the vaccine,” Wilson-Walker said.
Originally from Dorchester, Ont., Wilson-Walker, despite a double-leg amputation, was involved in sports from a young age. Her family wanted her to “be active and be a normal kid.” She learned to skate, took horseback riding lessons, swam and played golf. But when she discovered the track in high school, she found her niche.
While in high school, Wilson-Walker qualified for youth nationals in British Columbia and came home with three gold medals in the para 100m, 200m and javelin. Last November, she was named part of Team Canada, and she hoped to secure a spot at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, with a goal of going as a role model for others who are facing similar obstacles.
“I missed the cutoff for Rio – they were supposed to bring 11 girls and 11 guys but only ended up bringing eight girls, and I was number nine,” Wilson-Walker said, noting the season was a long one and she is not discouraged in the least.
She hopes to compete in the next World Championships in London, England, in 2017 and will be working hard to land a spot on Team Canada for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan.
In the meantime, Wilson-Walker is training with Western’s varsity track and field team, looking forward to some meets south of the border and focusing on her school work. She wants to be a social worker once she is done at King’s, and hopes to use her experience, and story of overcoming obstacles, to help others.
“I want to help kids with disabilities. I used to volunteer at a therapy riding centre – Jabez Therapy Ranch. I can relate to the kids a lot better than some of the volunteers. I also have a disability. If they’re hurting or something, I get where they are coming from,” she said.
As for the photoshoot with Geddes, Wilson-Walker said she was honoured to participate. The experience of flying to New York City, working with the photographer and meeting other athletes with similar experiences as a result of meningococcal disease was a nice opportunity to share her story and hear those of others.
“While I’ve been given amazing opportunities and am so proud of my accomplishments, being diagnosed with meningococcal disease was terrifying for me and my family. I would strongly urge Canadians to talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated against the different strains of the disease to help prevent the risk of having to go through what my family and I endured,” she wrote in an awareness blog post earlier this year.