As I walk in to meet Nathalea Miller at a school where she goes to learn broadcast journalism, the lady at the reception tells me that Nathalea is busy at the moment.
It is 11.30 am, the time of Nathalea’s lunch break. She had told me before, that would be a good time for me to go and talk to her. I waited patiently and after about 10 minutes I see Nathalea coming out of one of the rooms. As I get up to go to her, I see what had kept her. She was comforting and helping one of her friends out of the classroom who had just taken ill. After she and another friend made sure she was comfortable and well taken care of, she told me I could come in to a room at the back of the school for the interview.
“Oh, I used to be a nurse,” Natalie tells me as we sit down for a chat. “15 years. Then one day, just like that, I lost the vision in both my eyes, and everything came to a halt.”
December 2007. Just a week before Christmas, Nathalea suffered a major blackout after multiple headaches that she had been having prior to that. “I was rushed to the hospital. Several tests later I was diagnosed with extremely high intra ocular pressure, which had led to my blackout. I was taken in for an emergency surgery of my eyes to bring down the pressure."
"But I lost my vision.”
3 weeks later Nathalea's stiches erupted. “I suffered extreme headaches, but I was told that I’ll be fine.”
10 months passed by. 18 different pills each day. Two different eye drops. Extreme pain from the glare of light inside the house that did not seem to get lessened by the sunglasses that Nathalea had to have on in the house all day long. But nothing changed for the better.
“I was finally forced to resign from my nurse's job as I failed to recover and return to work.”
Another doctor’s final diagnosis broke her last bit of hope.
“You’re legally and permanently blind, and there is nothing more we can do.”
Those words fell louder than a thunderstorm on Nathalea’s ears.
Nathalea, or Nat as everyone in her school now call her, is in her forties and trying to start her life all over again. “I want to become a health awareness reporter. So I come here to this school which teaches broadcast journalism to people with physical disabilities.”
She convinces me that there is a life for those with disabilities. “Of course, if you’re blind, don’t be expecting people to trust you to inject a needle in their veins if that’s the kind of nurse you want to become!”
Nathalea’s vivacious and infectious laughter so far hides well, the pain she felt upon losing her vision eight years ago. As a nurse, working for up to 12 to 16 hours a day at times for a period of 15 years, she was used to being the one upon whom patients depended upon. “I didn’t quite understand how to suddenly start depending on others.”
“A mental health patient in my family led to my curiosity of the human body and our health as a child. Since then I wanted to grow up to understand people’s health, help them and take care of them,” Nathalea talks of how she got into the profession of nursing two decades ago. “Nursing has got to be the most rewarding job there is out there,” she tells me, pointing out to the happiness she would get from doing things for others that would go beyond the call of duty. “I was so used to doing the groceries for those who couldn’t step out of their houses. I would drive all over after my work hours, taking mothers and their new born babies back to their homes from the hospital. And once back home, I had my own mother to take care of. She is suffering from Parkinson’s disease you know...”
Being told she was permanently blind left her devastated. “How was I going to take care of everyone now? My mother looks to me for help. To her, I was her mother”
All visits to doctors proved futile. No matter what she did, nothing helped bring back the vision in her eyes. But she had hope. Eight years later, Nat remains blind in both her eyes but a slight peripheral vision in her right eye gives her a bit of hope to carry on with her life without any complaints at all.
But what she did learn about life in these past years are something that she calls life lessons. For the first time she saw the true colours of those around her that she had never imagined before.
“I learnt how easily people can write you off as a damaged good the moment they get to know you are disabled. Sometimes it’s what they say. Sometime it’s what they don’t say.”
False hopes, friends and family slowly turning away, people mistreating her all became part of her life in the years to come. Oldest of the siblings in her family, Nat was at a stage when she was ready to get married and ‘settle down’ before she had lost her vision.
“But then one day, my boyfriend came to me and said, ‘what am I going to tell my family now that you’re blind?"
"It didn’t take very long for him to leave me and then go and marry another girl.
I felt like I was dying on the inside very slowly.” Nat’s best friend of 25 years said things to her that hurt her till today. Angry at everyone around her, she is amazed at getting treated better from strangers than she did by her own. “Back then, I didn’t think I deserved the wicked treatment I got.” Helpless, unsure and not knowing how to take things further, it took time for her to come to a realization. She recalls sadly, how people who owed her money never called her again. Those who offered her comfort and promised to come pick her up from her home to help her do her groceries, never turned up as she waited all day for them to come.
And yet this was the same girl who would be going all over to help others out with their groceries whenever they wanted. Small things became hurtful.
She attributes her getting through her difficult phase to her spiritualism. “I understand today, that if one is not in the exact position as another, it’s just not possible for one to quite realize what another person is going through. I understand now, that I have no control over other people or circumstances.”
In spite of having gone through bitter experiences, Nat couldn’t stop helping others. Nursing was part of her second nature. Giving, taking care of others, nurturing are all part of what makes her the woman she is. She remembers a time when she would ask God, ‘Why me?’. Now she says to herself, ‘Why not me?’
Nat now spends her time in homes for the aged, singing to them, passing on to them thoughts of encouragement and motivation. “They look forward to my songs and to what I wear every time I go,” she laughs. “They like to come close to me and feel my dress. I like to dress up each time I go visit them.”
Nathalea hopes once she completes her course in broadcast journalism, she can reach out to people with her nursing background and promote awareness about health. She has her dreams all chalked out. “My talk show will be called ‘Health Matters,’ she says excitedly.
“When you have acquired blindness and not born with it, a lot of the times people don’t always accept that you are truly blind. I have been told on many occasions that I can’t be blind since my eyes are so bright. There is a stigma that only old people acquire blindness. That is just not true.”
She is now on a mission to remove all misconceptions around blindness and how people deal with it, while at the same time help those affected by sudden trauma of losing their vision due to external factors.
Nathalie is now a source of strength to the weak, a ray of hope to the hopeless in her role as a facilitator for three support groups in Mississauga, helping the vulnerable come out of their houses.
“The people in my groups are those people whose vision has been directly affected as a result of some serious health issue.” Commonly known as sudden trauma to the eyes, affected people don’t know how to cope with life after becoming a victim to it. “The biggest after-effect is depression. I know what is to be locked up in the house for 10 months, suddenly blind and hoping each day that something is going to change and life is going to get back to normal.”
But it doesn’t, and one just has to accept that and adjust to the new life.
Nathalea is providing the much needed emotional support to such people, a support and motivation she never had when she needed it the most. “Nobody around me understood my plight. They were used to seeing this bouncy, vivacious person all the time, always happy, always joking around. The fact that I was suffering within and was falling in deep depression didn’t cross their minds, and even if it did, they didn’t accept it.” Having mentored over a hundred people till date, Nat finds peace in knowing that her mentees find comfort in opening up to her. Most of the people who come to her are in denial about their condition. “They leave facing reality and enjoy the support they get sitting in our group,” says a content Nat. At the end of each session, she holds an ‘inspiration party’, and each person leaves with a feeling of being connected once again. “A physical disability should not make you disconnected with the rest of the world. You should not have to be done away with. You are still a human.” Nat repeats again and again.
The support groups that Nathalea runs today teaches the vulnerable coping mechanisms after a sudden loss of vision, techniques to not fall into the rut of depression, acceptance of one’s reality, mental health and financial management. Her years of nursing helps her tremendously to understand both the emotional and the clinical aspects of the person's state while helping them through their hard journey. But her presence always makes it easier for the aged, for the cancer survivors, for the impaired. Nat gladly shares a letter that was written to her by one of her mentees:
"The support group has been a tremendous support to me. Prior to attending the group I had significant challenges leaving my home as well as getting the motivation to get out of bed.
Your professional and down to earth personality was immediately welcoming & inviting. Your tone of voice was calming. Your skill set and lived experiences gave me hope to function with my special abilities. The sessions were informative, resourceful and most of all fun!
Thank you for a designated space to call my own.
Seeing her own condition as an opportunity to understand those in a similar position, Nat volunteers most of her time spreading awareness. “It is something I never knew about before. But now I have experienced the pain, and the helplessness. So I share with the community, all that I know.”
Nat also runs a phone support program along with her group sessions. “I tailored the program so that patients who have been hit by trauma due to sudden blindness and who are bed-ridden due to some health condition or are say for example, new mothers and are unable to leave their houses, find the same help and opportunity by just calling me."
“Healing comes in different forms for different people. Music is my way of healing, for God has put a song in my heart. People tend to lose themselves in this constant go-go-go race.” Being forced to slow down, Nat is grateful for everything that life has given to her.
I ask her before leaving, if she had any hopes of her vision ever returning.
“Oh there’s always hope!”
Nathalea, you have changed so many people's lives just with your own positivity, we thank you for being the hope to all the lives you have touched. Thank you!
Inspired by Nathalea's story? You can share it on your wall and pass on the inspiration!