Oldest People Ever with Spina Bifida

7 Oldest People Ever with Spina Bifida

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Spina bifida is defined as a birth defect in which there is incomplete closing of the spine and the membranes around the spinal cord during early development in pregnancy. There are three main types: spina bifida occulta (the most common form), meningocele, and myelomeningocele (the most severe form).

While spina bifida is not that rare – about 15% of the world’s population have spina bifida occulta – in the past, being born with the condition was often a death sentence. Even though life expectancy for those with spina bifida has increased significantly, especially in developed countries, the condition is still thought of as a childhood illness.

Every person on this list live well past their doctor’s predictions. Many of them credit their longevity to not developing hydrocephalus (a buildup of fluids in the brain), which was and still is hard to treat. Besides mobility issues and other minor health problems, and several surgeries throughout adolescence, everyone on this list has lived a fairly average life, doing things that many people often take for granted.

As of October 2020, the information on this list is as accurate as possible and will be updated as needed.

7. Michael J. Brennan (1949 – Present)

Oldest Age Reached (or Last Known Age): c.70 years old (as of 2020)
Country of Origin: Pennsylvania, USA
Current or Last Known Residence: Ashtabula, Ohio, USA
Occupation(s): High School Science Teacher, RN, and Senior Lecturer at Kent State University at Ashtabula

Michael J. Brennanphoto source: kent.edu

In 2014, Michael J. Brennan, a senior lecturer at Kent State University at Ashtabula, published “Reflections on Mother’s Day,” which covered his story with spina bifida and how his mother fought to give him a normal life. Brennan said that his mother was told to basically shut him away in an institution and forget about him when he was born with spina bifida. However, Brennan’s mother didn’t listen and nurtured her son to live life as fully as possible.

Brennan was encouraged to attend college and he went on to become a high school science teacher for 30 years. He eventually became a registered nurse and retired in 2001. A few years later, Brennan began teaching as a faculty member in biological sciences at Kent State University at Ashtabula, Ohio. In addition to a great career, Brennan is also a father.

Did You Know?

In 2015, Michael J. Brennan received the Faculty Recognition Award, University Teaching Council of Kent State University.


6. Janice Rovick (December 6, 1941 – Present)

Oldest Age Reached (or Last Known Age): 78 years, 10 months, 11 days (as of October 2020)
Country of Origin: Edina, Minnesota, USA
Current or Last Known Residence: Edina, Minnesota, USA
Occupation(s): Worked at Edina Realty

photo source: Walker Methodist Blog

Janice Rovick was featured on the Walker Methodist blog in 2019 as one of the oldest living people with spina bifida. When Rovick was born in 1941, doctors told her mother, Emma, that she would not live past the age of eight. All her life, Rovick was told by other people that she couldn’t do certain things, but with her parents’ love and encouragement, she proved them wrong.

Rovick lived on her own for many years, but moved into the Walker Methodist Care Suites of Edina in 2018. According to the blog post, Rovick is already planning a big celebration for her 80th birthday.

Did You Know?

After graduating high school and traveling on her own to Europe, Janice Rovick went to work for her mother’s company, Edina Realty, which is one of the largest realty companies in the U.S. and a Berkshire Hathaway affiliate.


5. Ellen Dibler (April 4, 1931 – Present)

Oldest Age Reached (or Last Known Age): 79 years, 6 months, 13 days (as of October 2020)
Country of Origin: Edina, Minnesota, USA
Current or Last Known Residence: North Texas, USA
Occupation(s): Lab Technician and Served on the Board of Directors of the National Spina Bifida Association and Spina Bifida Advocate

photo source: strivemedical.com

Ellen Dibler is most likely the oldest known living person with spina bifida in the United States. Like everyone else on this list, Dibler defied every doctor’s prediction that she would not live long or go on to live a fairly normal life. Dibler attended college, which wasn’t that common for women at the time, and earned a degree in Laboratory Medicine.

During college, Dibler met her future husband, Larry Dibler, and ended up starting a family with him even though doctors warned her that she wouldn’t be able to carry her baby to term. The Diblers have two sons. In addition to working as a lab technician, Dibler has spent most of her adult life advocating for people with spina bifida.

Did You Know?

On its 25th anniversary, the National Spina Bifida Association named Ellen Dibler their Outstanding Person of the Year.


4. Bill Whatley (December 1929 – February 2, 2011)

Oldest Age Reached (or Last Known Age): 81 years old in 2011
Country of Origin: Ozark, Alabama, USA
Current or Last Known Residence: Huntsville, Alabama, USA
Occupation(s): Co-Founder of Huntsville Aviation and Phoenix, which provides jobs for people with disabilities

Bill Whatleyphoto source: www.al.com

Bill Whatley was born in December 1929 with spina bifida myelomeningocele, the most serious form of the condition. Despite the odds, which were not stacked in Whatley’s favor, Whatley defied his doctors’ predictions and lived to be 81 years old. Not only did Whatley live far beyond what people thought, but he lived a very full life.

Although Whatley grew up in poverty on a small farm, him and his siblings all grew up to be successful. Whatley was the co-founder of Phoenix, an organization that helped people with disabilities find jobs. In addition to Phoenix, Whatley co-founded Huntsville Aviation and ran it for several decades.

Did You Know?

Bill Whatley was not only survived his early spina bifida complications, but he was also a colon cancer survivor.


3. Jerry Bretag (February 14, 1932 – July 9, 2014)

Oldest Age Reached (or Last Known Age): 82 years, 4 months, 25 days in 2014
Country of Origin: Ottawa, Illinois, USA
Current or Last Known Residence: Ottawa, Illinois, USA
Occupation(s): Sportswriter, Sports Editor, and Sports Historian

photo source: mywebtimes.com

Jerry Bretag is another long-lived spina bifida survivor who didn’t let his condition stop him from living his life. Doctors told Bretag that he wouldn’t live past his teenage years, but he went to graduate from high school and college. After completing school, Bretag had a 40-year career as a sportswriter and sports editor, and went on disability in 1984. Bretag continued to do work even after he went on medical disability. He did research and record-keeping for the Illinois High School Association for several decades before spending his final years at the LaSalle County Nursing Home.

Did You Know?

Jerry Bretag had several surgeries as a child that eventually allowed him to walk with the aid of leg braces and canes. He walked and lived independently until he was 72 years old.


2. Bob Vosburg (October 22, 1930 – September 15, 2013)

Oldest Age Reached (or Last Known Age): 82 years, 10 months, 24 days in 2013
Country of Origin: Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA
Current or Last Known Residence: Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, USA
Occupation(s): Sports Editor and later Managing Editor of New Castle News

photo source: worthpoint.com

Unlike most of the other people on this list, Bob Vosburg did not know he had spina bifida until he was 76 years old. When he was born, doctors told his parents that his difficult breech birth did damage the nerves in his spine, but they never declared it spina bifida. However, Vosburg learned to manage his disability and walked with leg braces, crutches, and a cane for most of his life. Vosburg only started using a wheelchair in his later years.

Vosburg’s parents worked hard to make sure he received adequate care and education, and sent him to a residential school for children with physical disabilities. After graduating from Penn State, Vosburg worked as sports editor and later the managing editor of the New Castle News. Vosburg passed away peacefully at the age of 82.

Did You Know?

Bob Vosburg learned about his spina bifida in 2006 at a wheelchair clinic and was directed to UPMC’s Adult Spina Bifida Clinic, headed by Dr. Brad Dicianno, where Vosburg learned how people with spina bifida aged.


1. Albert De Greve (March 13, 1923 – Unknown)

Oldest Age Reached (or Last Known Age): 90 years old in 2013; no updates since then
Country of Origin: Zelzate, Belgium
Current or Last Known Residence: Sint-Nikklas, Belgium
Occupation(s): Tailor

Albert De Grevephoto source: Twitter via The International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus

In 2013, The International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (IFSBH) wished Albert De Greve a Happy 90th Birthday. This makes Albert De Greve the oldest known person ever with spina bifida. Following the 2013, birthday announcement, public information about De Greve’s life was never released, so it is unknown if he still alive.

At the time of his 90th birthday, De Greve was living in a retirement home in Sint-Nikklas, Belgium and appeared to be doing well. De Greve first caught the attention of the IFSBH when the organization was asked to identify the oldest person with spina bifida. IF Board member Jon Burke said he knew of an 80 person with spina bifida and it turned out to be Albert De Greve.

Did You Know?

Albert De Greve said that the one of the biggest reasons for his longevity was because he never developed hydrocephalus as “back in those days, there was no treatment for it. Children with hydrocephalus were left to die.”


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