At 72, Jodey Porter has finished an illustrious career as a senior Ontario public servant. She has been, among other roles, an Ontario human rights commissioner, a member of the United Nations Council on Human Rights and executive director of the Canadian Diabetes Association.
In her volunteer life, she continues her efforts to enable Doctors Without Borders to serve its medical mandate in conflict zones around the world. She is also part of the group’s hostage negotiation team. She has had leadership roles in more than a dozen arts, health, and advocacy organizations.
Just this past month, as reported in The Lake Report, Porter received the Rotary Club’s prestigious Paul Harris Award for her service to local, national and international organizations.
Porter has been a longtime resident of Old Town.
Her husband, Ben Buholtz, is recovering from a massive stroke that took his mobility, speech and almost his life, one year ago.
She is currently living alone in a small house in Old Town, working hard toward the day Ben will be well enough to return home from long-term care at Pleasant Manor.
Porter’s daily life is split between visiting and nurturing Ben and feverishly learning to cope on her own.
Jodey Porter is blind.
Porter started losing her vision at about the age of five. The doctors believed her blindness was caused by Lyme disease, a result of tick bites.
“That’s the theory,” she says. “I primarily spent my early days in hospitals all over North America. My dad spent all his salary on just trying to fix my blindness. And it didn’t fix, although I had partial sight for most of my life.”
Through it all she learned to survive, even thrive, without her sight.
But on her birthday, a little over a year and a half ago, after five surgeries to counteract her diminishing sight, she lost all vision. It literally disappeared.
“I spent my whole life just nursing along,” she says softly. “All of my life from the time I was five, I thought, if I lose my vision completely, I’m going to go out and hang myself.
“When it finally went, the bottom went out.”
She applied for and was accepted for medical assistance in dying (MAID), federal legislation that allows eligible adults to request the help of a doctor or nurse practitioner in intentionally ending their own life.
“I was really going that way. And then Ben had his stroke and holy cow, I mean, I can’t leave Ben. He brought me back,” she says. “He gave me the determination to figure out how to survive.”
It’s clear Porter’s resilience was born in her early childhood family experience.
“I didn’t grow up anywhere,” she says. “I was born in Hamilton. Because my dad was General Secretary of the Missionary Society of Canada, we went everywhere. We moved around in his clerical career. Hamilton, to Huron Diocese, to Toronto. He just went off to the wide world.
“India, Africa, South Africa—the universe. And I would often go with him.”
Porter and her sister, who lives in Brantford, are descended from many generations of Anglican ministry—grandfather an archdeacon, uncles, great uncles.
“My sister and I were in boarding school. We lived in a church-funded home in Toronto.
“Mother was a clergyman’s daughter. Bachelor of Science from McGill. She was the director of quality control for Carnation Milk. She came secretary to the Bishop of Niagara.”
Porter chuckles when she thinks about her upbringing within the church family.
“The expectations are beyond human. You are supposed to be angelic and perfect.
“There is no parish on earth that doesn’t have insipient civil war at some point. So, you must be perfect, and your domestic life is rattled by the distant cannon fire of various squabbles.”
She studied Victorian English at the University of Waterloo and attended the University of Western Ontario for graduate studies.
Porter and Buholtz have been married for six years.
“Our spouses both died of cancer in Florida. The four of us were casual friends—trivia buddies.
“We were devastated by losing our life partners, but along the way, we realized we had our own partnership.”
Today, their partnership is weathering an emotional and physical storm.
“Throughout Ben’s ordeal, he has said he wants to come home. He’s had over a year in hospital, rehab and long-term care. He couldn’t speak for almost eight months, not a single word. Occasionally a whisper.”
But both are certain he will make it.
“He recently stood up for the first time. He’s now able to come home three days a week. His speech is almost back. His sense of humour is back.”
Porter sold their two-storey home in favour of an attached bungalow with everything on one floor.
“If he can just get a little bit more mobile, we can ultimately get him home.”
Her confidence and commitment are infectious: “Together. Against the odds. He can see and I can’t. I can move and he can’t. It’s going from tragic to epic.”
Modern technology plays an important part in Porter’s life—both for what it can do and for what it can’t.
Case in point, while attending university, Porter’s mother spent long evenings recording her daughter’s English texts on reel-to-reel tape recordings, often losing her voice with the effort.
“Now, I can download anything in my phone instantly. It’s a whole new world order.”
Her use of technology can also have a humorous side.
She depends on Nigel (her name for Siri, Google’s digital assistant) for helping her connect with the world.
“The other day, I got really frustrated about something and I said: ‘O, Jesus Christ!’
“Nigel informed me quietly that we didn’t have Jesus Christ in our contacts.”
But in the end, her true emotional and physical revival depends on solutions very far from technology.
Porter is absolutely convinced her quality of life depends on having a guide dog: a working friend to enable her life.
It was months ago that Porter explored the Canadian system for acquiring a suitable animal.
“Canada only has 34 orientation mobility (white cane) instructors in Canada,” she says. Agile white cane use is one of the prerequisites for guide dog ownership.
“In Canada, at my age, I probably wouldn’t get a guide dog until I died.”
So, with the help of friends, she attended the San Diego School for the Blind for three months.
“It was transformational,” she says. “I learned white cane—I can now go out to dinner on my own. I can cook again. I can use my computer again. They gave me sensory awareness. And guide dog preparatory training.
“Their whole objective is to kick you out of the nest.”
But while the white cane ability is satisfying, it is guide dog ownership that spurs her on.
“With a cane, you are always looking for danger. With a dog, you are not. You are looking for opportunities. The dog will find you the door; make sure you go straight across the street.”
To achieve her goal, Porter has completed extensive medical assessments, physical and occupational therapy and even completed a video-taped two-mile independent walk using a white cane.
Six of her closest friends have completed interviews attesting to Porter’s ability to be responsible for a guide dog.
“Good news is that I have been approved for instruction at the oldest and toughest guide dog school in North America. Ben says it is because I am old and tough.”
In the next couple of months, she will fly to New Jersey to attend a month-long guide dog training session, working with and getting to know, her new dog. At the end of the course, they will fly home together to begin their new life together.
Porter heartily acknowledges that she couldn’t have achieved any of this without her community.
“I would not be anywhere without the people who support me. Unbelievable. Dozens of old and new friends. It’s been everybody. I have walkers every morning. Help driving everywhere. Everything.”
If it takes a village to raise a child, it is equally true that it is their village that will bring Jodey and Ben, and their new guide dog, back together again.