NICEVILLE — Corina Zalace has a life saying without which, she said she would not be here today.
“God is my strength, that’s the only way that I have made it through what I have,” she said. “He’s given me the choice to be better or bitter.”
The 70-year-old is a polio survivor and has lived every day of her life in physical pain since contracting the disease at 2 1/2 years of age. But she has never let her handicap hold her back, she said. Instead, she credits her faith in God for helping her overcome adversity.
“We all go through situations in life and we can be negative or positive,” she said. “We end up worrying about today and tomorrow, so I have this little saying, ‘Today is the tomorrow that you worried about yesterday,’ and I love that.”
Zalace was born in Indonesia, in 1948 to a Dutch family, as her father worked for the Dutch East India Trading Company. She contracted polio in September of 1950, but it wasn’t until after she had recovered from flu-like symptoms that her parents realized something was wrong with her.
“My mom thought I just had the flu, but then a few days after I got over the flu, I couldn’t get up,” Zalace said. “She picked me up and put me on the floor and I just collapsed. The doctor came and did a spinal tap and I had the polio virus. He said, ‘Your daughter has polio and it’s permanent.’ ”
But Zalace said her mother taught her to be a fighter, and even pushed her a bit too hard when it came to her handicap.
“My mother made me limp along and to walk,” she said. “She told her friends, ‘She will never depend on anyone,’ and that created another problem for me — I was never allowed to ask for help.”
Zalace said the polio virus paralyzed her from the waist down, but with vigorous therapy and numerous surgeries she was able to walk again. To date, Zalace has had 97 surgeries and said that when she was young, her father would give her a gift, such as a bookcase, a chest of drawers, and a desk, before every surgery.
"I found out from my sisters that they were very jealous because they didn't get any gift," she said of the tradition. "All this kind of stuff that my dad did for me and they felt kind of cheated. I just found that out as an adult, in the last few years."
Zalace and her family were forced to leave Indonesia and eventually moved to America when she was just 12 years old, which turned out to be a blessing for her medically.
When Zalace was 15 years old, she met Stan, who she describes as the only man to ever take notice of her.
The two met at work, in an orchid laboratory in Los Angeles, California. Although Stan was four years her senior, Zalace said he made her feel like a princess, a pet name he still calls her to this day.
“My husband was the first guy to ask me out on a date,” Zalace said of Stan. “He gave me something that no one had ever done, he noticed me and he saw something in me that was beyond my handicap.”
As for Stan, he said he didn’t care what other people thought of their relationship, he just knew he loved Corina.
At their wedding, Stan said he accidentally caused a family uproar. During the ceremony, he saw a woman hide under the alter and thought she was there to take a photo when he kissed the bride.
“When it came time to kiss the bride I kissed her and kissed her and kissed her,” Stan said. “The women started to chitter and the men started to go off. I kissed her for over five minutes. Then the woman came out from under the alter with two microphones, she wasn’t taking pictures.”
Stan said he never did find out what the woman was doing, but the story is now a fond memory of the love he has for his bride.
In 1967, Stan went into the military and the couple began a nomadic military life traveling all over the United States and overseas to Germany.
The couple soon had three children, Galen, Giselle and Arix, and Zalace said they were very well-behaved and patient children when it came to dealing with her handicap.
“I’d have to say, ‘Mommy’s got to wait for a minute, I can’t walk anymore,’ but they were very patient, very understanding," she said. "I don’t recall them ever having a problem with me being handicapped; that’s how they knew me.”
In fact, Zalace said she would overextend herself in order to try to be a good mom to her children; she baked for their classes, refused babysitters and ran small businesses out of her home.
“That’s how my kids viewed me, there was nothing I couldn’t do,” she said. “I’m an artist, I’m a poet, I was a scientific illustrator for years. I made meals, whatever that needed to be done, I did, I was supermom to them - that is how I portrayed myself, but it was killing me practically.”
Zalace said that all of the pressure she put on herself to perform, to live as if she didn’t have a handicap, and to prove herself to the world finally took a toll on her mentally, and in 1995, she was admitted into the Eglin psychiatric unit.
“That’s when everything came crashing down in 1995 and two of our kids were still living at home at that time,” she said. “Our daughter took it the hardest, all of the sudden she was in the role of a mother and she didn’t like it at all. I’m not ashamed of it because it brought help that I needed for me and my family.”
Becoming an overcomer
Zalace said at the time she was admitted to the mental ward in 1995, she had an eating disorder, was depressed, had severe OCD and was overall dysfunctional.
However she said that her faith, and the therapy she received in the hospital, opened her eyes to the fact that it was OK to ask others for help. She said that God gave her a revelation that, just as she finds joy in helping others, others can find joy in helping her.
“That changed my whole attitude about how I saw asking people for help, so I don’t have a problem with that any more. I can be real,” she said.
Zalace has now been confined to a wheelchair for 33 years, but she said she has finally chosen to see it as a positive thing.
“The post-polio syndrome put me in a wheelchair, but then I realized that I have more freedom,” she said. “I’ve done crazy things. Three years ago I went to Australia and New Zealand and I bungee jumped. I was 67 and then immediately after that, I went parasailing in Destin and then I went ziplining in the Great Smokies.”
Now, at 70, Zalace still lives with her loving husband Stan in their home in Niceville, and the two enjoy visiting with their three children and four grandchildren.
Zalace said her new mission in life is to share her story of overcoming.
“I would love to go and speak about being an overcomer of a handicap,” she said, noting that she recently spoke at the Rotary Club of Fort Walton Beach. “What I would like people to hear is, what I have learned as a post-polio person is that we have choices in life. Everyone has a choice.
"I’m grateful for my life, I’m grateful for what I have. It’s all about outlook, it’s all about your attitude.”