Eleanor Mills was a woman living with significant bone loss who saw herself as “a bent lady looking like an inverted L” after sustaining multiple osteoporotic fractures. Her daughter, Helen, describes her as a “beautiful and beloved” person who was eager to help others and could easily connect with anyone. Living with severe osteoporosis, Eleanor wanted to share her story with others and became actively involved in fundraising for osteoporosis research, spreading valuable information, and using her passion to pursue the extraordinary accomplishment of walking across Canada to raise awareness about osteoporosis. Her desire to walk across this country decades after her spinal fractures helped her build an organization to support her cause despite her serious health challenges. Her cross-country walk alongside her team, known as the Boney Express, was inspired by the Terry Fox runs. It was the peak of Eleanor’s Canadian life and the greatest gift she gave to her community.
Eleanor Mills’ osteoporosis journey began at the age of 58 when she noticed that her calf-length dress had suddenly reached her ankles. She recalled, “I heard a very unusual crushing sound and felt a vibration as I awkwardly held onto some heavy grocery bags”. Eleanor realized later that the sound she heard was the crushing of her spine. At that time, she had no pain, that was to come later.
Eleanor reached out to others in the osteoporosis field who she befriended while attending an osteoporosis program at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Despite her apparent disability, Eleanor and her support team walked in over 130 communities across Canada. The walk started on Mother’s Day in 1993 in Victoria, BC, when Eleanor was 79 and continued in the spring/summer months until 1994 when it came to an end in Saint John’s, Newfoundland. 7200 kilometres was a great feat, walking a hallmark pace of five kilometres per hour.
In each community, Eleanor’s “walkie-talkie” journey encouraged others to walk alongside the Boney Express, always speaking out about osteoporosis. Eleanor’s team members were also living with osteoporosis, but their early diagnoses prevented significant fractures and disabilities. Eleanor and her team participated in ongoing “training” by walking and doing bone-safe exercises to increase their strength and mobility. The Boney Express encouraged Canadians to speak to their doctors about osteoporosis.
What could inspire such an impressive journey?
Eleanor’s desire was to raise awareness about the importance of early diagnosis, walking, and eating a calcium-rich diet by connecting with other people living with osteoporosis. Eleanor’s inspiration grew with each community she visited and was further motivated by the local volunteers who supported her efforts. Eleanor said, “Those who helped me were simply splendid. They cannot be praised eloquently enough for helping me; a woman they had never heard of and never met.”
“Osteoporosis has relentlessly pursued and disabled women and men for centuries,” said Eleanor. “Now that early diagnosis and preventive measures are available, it is our duty to get ‘out there’ and spread the news. We need to let people know about this disease before they have a fracture as I have had.”
The walk was not the final step in Eleanor’s mission as she continued to serve as the Patron of Osteoporosis Canada, attending national board meetings and events while inspiring others who were living with osteoporosis. Eleanor Mills, Patron of Osteoporosis Canada and the trailblazer for the Boney Express, passed away at her home in Toronto on October 5, 2004, at the age of 90. Each year, Osteoporosis Canada gives The Eleanor Mills Inspiration Award to a volunteer who, like Eleanor, inspires others with determination, perseverance, and optimism.
A very special thanks to Judy Cline, Heather Clarke and Helen Mills for sharing their valuable expertise and stories about Eleanor Mills and the Boney Express so this article can be shared with our readers.
Credit: COPN, the Canadian Osteoporosis Patient Network is the patient arm of Osteoporosis Canada, a national network of people living with osteoporosis.
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