Sandy Allen has survived well beyond her own expectations. She recently celebrated her 52nd birthday and, at 7 feet, 7 inches, she is still listed by the Guinness book as the tallest woman in the world. But her legs can no longer support her 420-pound body.
Allen lives in a nursing home in Shelbyville, Ind. Friends help transport her around town in a van that was purchased with donations to a local fund.
Allen's sense of humor more than matches her size.
"I've been asked everything from how's your sex life to how do you sit on the toilet," she said with a laugh. "So nothing surprises me."
She is an extreme fan of the Indiana Pacers basketball team, which has supplied her with shoes and a bed, among other personal items. When the Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal heard about her, he sent her shoes and clothes.
O'Neal would be six inches shorter than Allen if they stood side by side. He is also 95 pounds lighter — the height of basketball players is typically due to "familial tall stature," or genes they inherit from one of their parents.
After studying the extensive information compiled for the National Geographic Channel specials, we wondered whether there were things that giants and dwarfs have in common. We arranged a meeting between Susie Campbell and Sandy Allen to offer them a chance to swap stories.
Predictably, both learned early in life to cope with the reactions of others.
"I understand why people do a double-take when they see me," said Allen. "They've probably never seen anyone as big as I am so I understand that. But some people go out of their way to make jacka--es of themselves … and those are the people I learned a long time ago to feel sorry for."
According to Campbell, she no longer sees such reactions as frequently. "Back in the '60s and '70s when I was growing up, yes, I did see it a lot. And I think I was more aware of it, too, being a young child. The older I became, I realized I can't let that bother me. … If I take time out to notice a person laughing, I've taken time out of my day and given it to them."
Allen was already 6 feet, 3 inches tall by the age of 10. She remembers her adolescence, during which she grew to 7 feet 7 inches, as a particularly trying time.
"In high school, I had two girls that were my friends. And that was it. The rest of them wouldn't have anything to do with me. I was too different. I was the local freak."
Campbell said she didn't have much experience dating in high school, but she did have an organization — Little People of America. "I got to go the national conference once a year. And that was my dating time, dancing with someone my own size and kind."
Allen has dated since high school. "I have encountered a lot of men that are average in size that are interested in tall women. Now people ask me if I'm married. And I tell them I never got married because my ring finger is a size 16 and I couldn't found a sucker rich enough to put a diamond that size on my hand. But I guess I just wasn't interested in getting married. I was happy living independently."
Personal independence is a goal shared by people of every size, and Allen and Campbell both went about it in her own way. But both acknowledged that learning how to ask for and accept help was just as important.