95-year-old Vet Norma Walker Lives Joyfully at Home Despite Terminal Diagnosis
By Marilyn Campbell
Carlsbad CA— It may astonish some people to discover that a nonagenarian on Hospice of the North Coast (HNC) service is so ebulliently full of life, but no one who knows Norma Walker (nee Ellis), age 95, would be surprised. This Carlsbad resident’s heart may be slowing down, but her indefatigable spirit and everpresent wide smile continue to soar and envelop everyone in her midst.
Norma, who did a brief stint in the U.S. Air Force as one adventure in her very full life, recently enjoyed a full-fledged military “Honor Salute” performed by Camp Pendleton Marine 1st Lieutenant Kimberly Colby, accompanied by 1st Lieutenant Haley Mansberger. Lt. Colby volunteers with HNC, which is aligned with the national We Honor Veterans organization, to recognize vets for their service. Sometimes the ceremony honors a group of aging vets who reside in a facility. In this instance, an intimate Salute took place in Norma’s comfy home.
Norma’s abode is as gracious and welcoming as its owner. She lives with caregiver Laurie Steele, her beloved cat Samson, and with nine-plus decades of memories that she is eager to share with visitors. Photographs adorning the home tell a story of a life exceedingly well-lived, and well-loved.
Her HNC providers say they are delighted to visit Norma, who regales them with stories and pictures of her exploits, which began when she was born in 1921 and grew up in Fallbrook and Oceanside. “Here I am,” she says, pointing to a photo of a stunning young lass in a bathing suit, “when I won the Oceanside Bathing Beauty Contest.” Coyly revealing a sassy image of a winsome fisherwoman, she smiles, “And here I am winning the 1939 Women’s Saltwater Fishing Derby Contest in Oceanside. One year before that, I was Miss San Diego County and led the celebration with Miss Orange County, Dorothy Walker, when Highway 101 was widened in 1938.”
Beauty, Brains and an Independent Spirit
Yes, she was quite the looker (her HNC fan club says she still is!), but Norma Ellis Walker was much more than a pretty face. As behooves a woman born just one year after women were finally granted the right to vote, she is smart and independent. After graduating from Oceanside High School, she accompanied a female friend who wanted to join the Air Force. The friend was rejected for medical reasons, but Norma was accepted so she signed up and packed her bags for training in Miami Beach. She confides, “I enjoyed the marching exercises, but when I learned after three months that I could rise no farther than a secretarial level and was given the choice to re-enlist or opt out, I left.”
It didn’t take Norma long to march forward energetically onto an exciting new life path. She moved back to Southern California, found a job at an aerospace company, met a man she adored, and three weeks later, Norma and Joe eloped to Las Vegas. Their happy union produced three children and lasted 57 years until his death in the late 1990s.
A lifelong North County resident who remains positive-spirited and tons of fun (“I do enjoy my wine!” she chortles) even as she faces a challenging, life-limiting condition, Norma was intent upon living out her life in her memory-filled home. Having a professional caregiver on-site 24/7 helps make that possible, as does HNC’s team of professionals, who visit regularly to minister to Norma’s medical, emotional and spiritual needs.
HNC Executive Director Sharon Lutz confirms, “One immense value Hospice of the North Coast offers is enabling terminally ill clients to stay in their homes, which in itself is restorative and reassuring. This was the foundational impetus of HNC’s establishment in 1980 when Father Paul Camm organized members of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Encinitas to help care for a dying congregant in her home. We steadfastly remain true to that original mission.”
Dame Cicely Saunders, worldwide founder of the hospice movement that began in the 1940s, observed, “As the body becomes weaker, so the spirit becomes stronger.” As Norma Ellis Walker looks forward to celebrating her 96th birthday this December, she has Samson, Laurie Steele, Hospice of the North Coast providers and her many other friends and fans on her side; walking the final walk with her so she does not have to walk alone.
Nonprofit Hospice of the North Coast was established in 1980 to fill the need for comprehensive, compassionate hospice care in North County San Diego. Since its inception, it has grown in services that include global partner Nkhoma Palliative Care in Malawi, a resale store in Encinitas, Pathways Palliative Care, Hope Bereavement Center and Pacifica House, the only in-patient acute symptom management facility in North County. For more information, visit www.hospicenorthcoast.org