Eric Turner has mastered the art of adapting.
He learned early on how to tie his shoes without fingers, how to twist doorknobs without thumbs, how to drive a straight drive by moving the gear shift with the crease of his wrist.
Born with a defect that left him without hands, Turner, 39, never saw the point in making excuses. He grew up not knowing what caused his condition and never really cared to find out.
The married father of two isn’t satisfied with just achieving the average. Along with his full-time position as a job coach at East Central Regional Hospital, Turner delivers for Pizza Hut and owns a lawn care business – on top of trying to launch a voice acting career – which keeps him working seven days a week, sometimes 14 hours a day.
“He can’t stop, period,” said his wife, Latasha. “He’s self-motivated and he can’t sit still. He’s got to be doing something always.”
It’s typically children who make a scene.
Turner arrives at their door, steaming pizzas in tow, and a little boy or girl will point, stare or yell what they see.
Turner’s left forearm is shortened close to the elbow, with two digits extending near his wrist. His right arm is longer, with one digit he uses to accomplish more in 24 hours than the average person.
“I don’t even have a hobby I stay so busy,” Turner said.
He works every weekday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at East Central Regional, helping patients learn job skills such as folding towels or housekeeping.
He heads to Pizza Hut on Tobacco Road five days a week and slings dough, answers phones, washes dishes, folds boxes and makes deliveries.
He cuts lawns about three days a week, sometimes with help from one of his sons, and gains customers by word of mouth. Turner has no modified equipment. He starts a lawn mower by wrapping the cord around his arm and trims by clutching the weedwhacker between his arms.
Turner wants to spend more time with his wife, whom he met 10 years ago at East Central Regional, and two stepsons, but the urge to provide for them won’t let him stop.
“I try to make time, but when I try to make time it’s as if I’m feeling like it’s rushed,” he said.
The real dream, however, is to hit it big as a voice actor.
Turner was born with a deep bass voice, with a set of pipes similar to Barry White. He dreams of doing voice-overs for commercials or movies.
Turner said that after taking a woman’s pizza order recently over the phone, she showed up to the store in shock “expecting me to be 6-foot-2 and 400 pounds.”
“He has such a rich, wonderful voice … it’s really an instrument,” said Marilyn Tomeo, an Augusta voice teacher who gave Turner a couple of vocal lessons.
Turner said he is willing to put in the work but has not navigated his path to stardom.
He hopes to move to Atlanta to break into acting, but something is still keeping him in Augusta.
Learning to adapt
Turner was born in Hephzibah. He and his two brothers and sister were raised by both parents, learning the value of hard work early on.
At 11 years old, he cut grass and swept patios for cash in the Castle Pines mobile home park where the family lived. At 14, he got
his first real job picking watermelon, corn and squash on a nearby farm.
“Anything to be able to make some money,” he said.
After graduating from Hephzibah High School in 1989, he worked at Bi-Lo until he joined the old Gracewood State School and Hospital as a housekeeper. He worked through the ranks to his present position as job coach, earning the affection of patients along the way.
“As far as me having a physical dilemma, I can relate to them,” he said. “Being able to cope with what you got.”
Turner never understood the cause of his defect, but his mother used to tell him “it’s just the way God made me.”
As a young child, doctors gave Turner a prosthetic that slid on to his right arm to help him grip better and hold a pencil. It ended
up in the junk drawer, and he has never thought about getting a new one.
David Flannery, who works in the department of pediatrics at Georgia Regents University, said limb defects are the most common type of birth defects. They result from genetic predispositions or a random flaw in the complex development people undergo from embryo to birth.
“When you deal with birth defects like we do, you’re amazed about how anyone can turn out halfway normal with how complicated our development is,” Flannery said.
‘Never give up’
Turner said he wouldn’t change much about his life, other than maybe making himself a famous actor.
Without 10 fingers, he can still do all functions of daily life and then some: brush his teeth, use a spoon, lift weights, raise a family, have a career, cut grass.
There are some things that are missing, though, that make him feel a hole inside.
He wants to know what it would feel like to lace fingers with his wife and to play baseball with his sons. He wishes he could high-five his friends.
“Some things like that folks might take for granted are those things I know I’ll never be able to do,” he said.
Still, his goal above anything is to be an example for his family that hard work can often fill any void in life.
“Never give up. Always strive to be who you want to be, who you could be, who you should be,” Turner said. “When you’re born into a situation, you have to learn to adapt to the environment. … Don’t let anybody say you can’t do it, because you can do it. At the end of the day, once the lights are out, it’s you. It’s you and no one else.”