June 17, 2018
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Shrine hospital care kept Craig Clifford out of a wheelchair

By Brian Swartz, Custom Publications Editor

When he’s not managing the Northern Division terminal for Magoon’s Transportation and Energy or relaxing at the Haynesville home that he shares with his mother, Althea Clifford, and girlfriend, Netti Watrous, Craig Clifford travels a lot in the summer.

He’s here, there, and everywhere with the Anah Go Karts, an Anah Shrine unit that annually participates in 15-20 parades in Maine and elsewhere. Craig drives the unit’s decked-out, yellow-and-green 1991 Chevy Suburban, and sometimes he swaps the SUV’s steering wheel for a go-kart steering wheel so he can entertain parade crowds.

Ironically, if not for the Shrine, Craig would not be doing any of this today; “he would be in a wheelchair,” Althea said.

Born in Houlton in 1962 to David and Althea Clifford, Craig has legs that never fully developed; “he couldn’t walk by holding onto things when he was old enough to start walking,” Althea said.

Early corrective surgery done in Bangor still left him unable to walk; then when Craig was 4½, two Shriners — his grandfather, Lee Clifford, and George Shean — “applied for him to be seen” at the Shrine Children’s Hospital in Springfield, Mass., Althea remembered.

“We sent pictures down to show them” Craig’s physical condition,” she said. Armed with that knowledge, Shrine medical specialists hospitalized Craig as soon as he arrived in Springfield. A few days later, doctors performed a surgery to stretch “the cords from behind his knees up to his groin,” Althea said.

Craig would undergo two more such surgeries by age 13. He made follow-up visits to the Springfield hospital and saw Shrine medical specialists at mobile clinics in Bangor; with the three surgeries and other medical care, Craig learned to maneuver very well on crutches.

The alternative was not pretty, and Althea knows whom to credit for Craig’s ability to get around.

“If it hadn’t been for the Shrine, he wouldn’t have been walking,” she said.

In the 1960s, patients at the Shrine hospital lived in wards, and parents could only visit their children on weekends. Much has changed since then; today children stay in private rooms, and parents can spend the night with their youngsters. Craig typically stayed at least a month each time he went to Springfield; he got to know the staff and the facilities quite well.

But for a young boy from Aroostook County, the Shrine hospital “had everything you could want,” Craig recalled. There were models to build, puzzles to make, Shrine clowns visiting on weekends, players from the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots stopping by the wards. There was a Boy Scout troop, a Girl Scout troop, a basketball court: “You name it, they had it,” he said.

“You’ll find no better staff” at any New England hospital, Craig said, describing his medical care as “excellent.” Althea remembered how hospital staff would adroitly divert her son’s attention when the time came for mom and dad to leave.

“You’d get busy, and then you’d look up, and they’d be gone,” Craig said, chuckling at the memory.

Over the years, Craig received free medical care at the Shrine hospital and clinics, and the Anah Shrine’s Sunshine Club often reimbursed Althea’s travel expenses. Althea indicated the Shrine-provided medical care “made all the difference.

“If we’d had to do all this ourselves, we’d never been able to afford it,” she said.

Craig ultimately graduated from Hodgdon High School after living for a while in Houlton. In 1993 he joined Baskahegan Lodge No. 175, A.F. & A.M. in Danforth; in 1994 he became a Shriner, a long-sought personal goal.

For some years, Craig and his chocolate Lab, Kody, belonged to the Anah K-9s. Kody, a registered therapy dog, would go with Craig and other K-9 teams to visit local nursing homes and, occasionally, the Shrine hospital in Springfield. The dogs were trained to visit with patients, who enjoyed petting the dogs and chatting with their handlers.

After Kody died, Craig was unsure about acquiring another dog. Then he learned that the Anah Go Karts “needed a ramp-truck driver,” so he signed on.

The unit appears in parades and at such Shrine functions as the Northeast Shrine Association Fall Field Days, held recently in Burlington, Vt. and Halifax, Nova Scotia and slated for Sept. 14-16 in Bangor. Craig drives the unit’s Suburban to these functions; the Shrine SUV and his personal vehicles are outfitted with hand controls.

And Craig installed a special steering wheel with hand controls on a Shrine go-kart so that he can sometimes buzz along a parade route and “wow” adults and children alike with the fancy maneuvers that the go-kart drivers perform.

Always ready to talk about Shrine medical care for children, Craig has spoken with many parents over the years and has given out applications for parents to complete and then mail to the Springfield hospital. “There’s no better place for children to go, if you ask me or thousands of others” who have been treated there, he said.

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