For Susan Bainbridge, an usher at the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington who has coped with and overcome multiple disabilities since birth, the annual Disabilities Awareness Mass Oct. 2 is an opportunity for understanding.
“People should come to the disabilities Mass to understand what disabilities are,” she said. “As we all age, we become a little slower and at some point we are going to need to have that Mass dedicated to us. It's not so much just helping the people who are disabled as it is helping the people who are not disabled understand the disabled.”
Bainbridge, a freelance news photographer and journalist in Arlington, specializes in military and national politics. She worked as a photographer during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and freelances coverage of the White House, Pentagon and Capitol Hill. She co-founded the Arlington County Crime Solvers with retired Arlington County Detective Jim Page in 1999.
Bainbridge said through the Mass, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde recognizes people with all disabilities, including those not visible.
“It's very important for those of us who came back from the Persian Gulf whether we were over there for a few days, or weeks or years,” she said. “We went over there fine, but we all came back with a memory, and sometimes we have those flashbacks. When we came back, we all came back changed in some way.”
Bainbridge was diagnosed with a prenatal accident at nine months old, had unknown paralyzing seizures at age 4, and battled breast and skin cancer from 1981 through 1998. She developed cerebral palsy on her left side at age 29. She was hospitalized 21 times in 19 months. In 1998, she was paralyzed temporarily from the waist down after falling on wet grass while walking her service dog. She suffered third-degree burns on half of her body due to a faulty stove in her apartment. She fractured her femur in 2007, and last year, she fell, suffering a collapsed left hip.
Yet despite the hip injury and torn ligament in her knee, Bainbridge has ushered for the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at the cathedral since 2011.
She ushers without the help of her service dog, Tank, a Rottweiler, for fear of encountering people who are allergic to dogs. Bainbridge said she trains service dogs for the disabled as well as military service dogs. She has used horses and dogs to overcome her own disabilities. Additionally, she wears steel-toed and -heeled boots that help keep her balance as she walks.
Bainbridge is writing a book, Overcoming Obstacles, about her experiences.
Her desire to serve is based in her faith.
“Between the church and my service animals, both horses and dogs, I'm able to overcome obstacles. I look at obstacles and say, you're going to put me out of commission temporarily but I've got a fix for it and that comes right back to faith,” she said. “I have a very strong faith in God and my service dogs and horses. For me, God protects me through them.”