Profile: Speaking from the Heart
2008 World Champion of Public Speaking combats chronic disease with wit and verbal skills.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Photo Caption: LaShunda Rundles won the 2008 World Championship of Public Speaking with her speech, “Speak!” while battling lupus.
LaShunda Rundles credits her mother’s unorthodox method of punishment for her gift of verbal communication. “Rather than spanking me and my siblings, my mother would make us memorize poetry and read books and write papers about them,” says the 2008 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking. “At the time, I thought, ‘This is so stupid! Why can’t she just whip me like other kids’ moms do?’ Instead, she cultivated my mind and taught me that verbal arguments have a lot more staying power than physical altercations.”
Rundles’ persuasive verbal skills not only helped her win the International Speech Contest, they also enabled her to successfully navigate the medical system and manage a serious chronic illness. Diagnosed with systemic lupus her senior year of high school, Rundles has struggled with numerous physical challenges associated with an unpredictable disease that affects the joints and other tissues throughout the body. A member of the Town North Trendsetters club in Dallas, Texas, she has endured nearly 20 surgeries and countless hospital stays over the years.
Being able to speak clearly and candidly to her physicians has been essential, says Rundles. Her Toastmasters training and years of public speaking – she began giving speeches as a youngster at church programs and school banquets – have given her confidence and poise. She’s not afraid to speak up when the need arises.
“Sometimes a doctor gives you an answer that’s just not thorough enough, and you really need to know more,” says Rundles. “You have to be assertive.”
At one point, Rundles was diagnosed with necrosis – the death of cells and body tissue – in her feet. Eventually, she had eight toes amputated, but it could have been worse if she hadn’t been assertive and questioned the original recommended course of action.
“If I hadn’t gotten a second opinion, I would have lost half of both feet instead of just eight toes, which would have meant extensive surgery and rehabilitation.
“Speak up and ask questions,” she adds. “When you get answers, make sure that you’re completely comfortable with the advice you receive.”
Speaking Helps the Healing
Toastmasters has also provided Rundles with a valuable creative and emotional outlet for dealing with her medical struggle. In addition to benefiting from the friendship and support of fellow members, Rundles has often given speeches about the impact of lupus on her life. Speaking and sharing about the subject is therapeutic, she says.
“Being able to voice what goes on in my life,” says Rundles, “makes this a lot easier to deal with, rather than just pretending that nothing goes on.”
Her World Championship- winning speech – titled “Speak!” – touched on her journey as a lupus survivor, as well as a number of other topics. At the start of the yearlong competition, Rundles gave a district-level speech soon after the amputation of her toes.
“I talked about how people will often tell me how unfortunate it is that I suffer with a chronic illness, but I just reply that I am actually fortunate, because I live every day as if it could be my last. For me, there are no wouldas, couldas or shouldas.”
As a result of her success managing lupus and as a way to give back, Rundles, a motivational speaker and author, wants to be the national spokesperson for the Lupus Foundation of America. Winning the International Speech Contest helped give her a platform to help others. “I believe lupus needs a voice like Michael J. Fox [who speaks about Parkinson’s disease] and Jenny McCarthy [who speaks about autism] to raise awareness and funding.”
Whether she is talking to doctors or delivering a speech, Rundles believes in honest communication – speaking from the heart. If meeting with a physician, she’ll “ask the hard questions.” “Sometimes I’ve wondered if doctors are trying to protect you with what they’re saying,” she notes, “but I want to know the whole story. Don’t sugarcoat anything that’s happening – because it’s my life.”
Her honesty and passion shine through in her presentations, says fellow club member Past International President Pauline Shirley. “There is a true depth and authenticity to her powerful speeches,” says Shirley. “She’s an incredibly strong woman; you can see that in how she has managed her health.”
Members Rally Around
Toastmasters has provided a tremendous support system for Rundles, who has belonged to the Town North Trendsetters since 2004. Added to the practical advice and encouragement she has received on speeches, countless Toastmasters have offered fellowship and support in her medical fight. That struggle became especially harrowing in the months after her World Championship triumph. Not long after her win, she was hospitalized when her intestines shut down. Over the next eight months, she endured 12 surgeries. She made a remarkable recovery, defying the doubts of some doctors.
Rundles, who received considerable media exposure in the wake of her 2008 victory, says she received e-mails and cards from Toastmasters around the world who had heard about her battle with lupus.
“I don’t think I would have survived this recent battle without my Toastmasters family,” Rundles says. “I believe the prayers from all over the world actually saved my life.
“To see the reach of what Toastmasters can do, and all the people supporting me, was phenomenal,” she adds. “This new family of people loving me and supporting me and sending me e-mails from all over the world gave me an energy and fight.”
Her strength of spirit amazes those closest to her, such as her sister, Sonya, who says, “Since we were kids, LaShunda has always been a fighter.”
Rundles’ fellow member and 2008 Convention roommate, Cynthia Brown, remembers how sick she was the night before delivering her championship speech. “She couldn’t keep her medicine down and didn’t sleep well all night – and it wasn’t nerves,” says Brown. “Despite how badly she felt, she gave a phenomenal speech the next day.”
One reason it’s been so important for Rundles to persevere in trying circumstances is the example it sets for her 14-year-old son, Dennis. Thinking back on the events of the Calgary International Convention, she recalls praying for the strength to get through her competition speech. “Once I was up [on stage], I was okay,” she says.
“My experience has taught my son how to prepare for the worst while staying hopeful for the best,” notes Rundles. “He’s learned that you don’t ever quit, and it’s not over until it’s over.”
Julie Bawden Davisis a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.