Working Stiff

Glenda Turner wrestles with ways to regain a normal life -- as others beat on her to break the grip of the bizarre syndrome racking her body

Herbert Royers oversees the cashiers, sackers and other workers at the Fiesta supermarket at 8130 Kirby Drive. He has gotten to know Turner in recent months during the handful of attacks she has had while shopping.

"Her muscles lock up … so we have to straighten out her arms and legs," Royers says matter-of-factly. He marvels that despite her apparent agony, Turner gives the crowd of five or so precise instructions about helping her. "At first it was a weird thing, but now it's really nothing."

Evelyn Hughes is not as nonchalant. The proprietor of Evelyn's Hair World in South Park remains traumatized by her one encounter with the affliction. Hughes was styling Turner's hair in November when a police siren outside caused her customer's body to lock up in the swivel chair. Terrified, Hughes followed Turner's command to call the fire department. Medics arrived to work with Turner on the hair-strewn floor.

Turner uses headphones to try to drown out sudden noise that could initiate an attack.
Deron Neblett
Turner uses headphones to try to drown out sudden noise that could initiate an attack.
Stallworth marvels that her friend has never suffered a bruise despite the rough handling.
Deron Neblett
Stallworth marvels that her friend has never suffered a bruise despite the rough handling.

The scene turned chaotic when a fire department supervisor showed up and ordered the men to stop, believing she was faking her disease.

"I've never seen nobody so cruel," Hughes says. "To me, this girl was dying. It was a bad situation."

"I'm blessed. Blessed, blessed, blessed," Turner purrs into the telephone the Saturday before Christmas, presumably in response to a question about how she's doing. Her hair is mussed, and she wears a T-shirt, pink pajama bottom and slippers.

She is back in the house of her youth, a modest ranch-style home off Martin Luther King Boulevard. Turner has returned to live with her mother, Pearl, an administrative assistant at Memorial Hermann Hospital. Her father, a maintenance supervisor who frequently held two or three jobs at a time, died in 1997.

The youngest of three girls, Turner seemed destined for a remarkable life.

"She's one of those creative genius types. She's very gifted," says Allecia Lindsey, a friend and lawyer for the NAACP.

In third grade, Turner's teacher at the local elementary school thought she needed a more challenging curriculum and sent her across the city to a Vanguard program. It engaged her academically but alienated her from the neighborhood kids who already ridiculed her for "talking white."

She experienced her first tragedy at age 12. Turner was talking on the phone with her closest friend when a gunshot rang out on the other end of the line. Sounds of a commotion replaced her girlfriend's cheerful voice. The girl's brother had been playing with a gun and, thinking it was not loaded, pulled the trigger. Turner's friend died of a wound to the head.

"It's so strange how my whole life changed. I wasn't a little girl anymore," Turner recalls. "I knew if I prayed, she'd live. But she didn't. I went through a period of not understanding who God was."

She immersed herself in writing to cope with the confusion and pain. Turner already had a reputation as a scribe, dating back to when she read her first poem in church at age five. She went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where she founded her own acting troupe, The Black Performers of Truth.

Outside school, Turner headed then-congressman Mickey Leland's youth task force and helped run a summer theater workshop for inner-city kids. After high school, she went to Fisk University in Nashville, one of the oldest black colleges in the country. She thrived among the intellectuals and artists she met there, including historian John Hope Franklin and dramatist George Houston Bass. A born activist, Turner plunged into campus politics with the same verve she brought to the stage, becoming president and commencement speaker for her class.

One of her longtime friends is Patricia Vandible Stallworth, a chemical engineer who would go on to become a trustee on the board of Houston Community College. "She was extraordinary even at Fisk," Stallworth says of Turner. "She made her impact as a personality, as a character and even as a student."

Her first indication of medical problems appeared during her junior year, when Turner was diagnosed with diabetes. Determined not to let it slow her down, she continued to take a hefty course load and work full-time as a staffing coordinator at a hospital. After college graduation in 1988, she took a series of jobs as a technical writer and computer specialist. In the fall of 1992, she joined the faculty of HCC as an English and reading instructor.

At about that time, Turner's health crumbled. She began vomiting incessantly, 20 to 30 times a day, sometimes in class. The eventual diagnosis: diabetic gastroparesis.

The condition became so severe that Turner left her job in November 1993 and spent two years in and out of hospitals. Complicating matters further, she grew addicted to the painkiller Stadol. But in September 1995 she decided she'd had enough. She bolted out of bed one morning and, with her father's help, got dressed and headed back out into the world. She landed a teaching post at the Texas School of Business.

Allecia Lindsey was a fellow instructor at that vocational school. She says her friend withstood daily bouts of nausea to become one of the most popular teachers there. She may have been ill, but she could make students passionate about poetry and rankle the administration with her rebellious streak. Lindsey recalls a faculty breakfast where bagels were served.

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