HPR Hero Melanie Taddeo
Art was her energy and teaching, her passion. A beautiful young girl in her 4th year in University pursuing Visual Art, Melanie was already an idol to her younger siblings and to all those who knew her. Life was fun and full of promises. Her positivity was contagious and her attitude carefree, yet full of care. Preparing herself to be a teacher, she was independent and strong and already in her own apartment. All of this and more by the time she was 21.
Melanie’s teaching instincts kicked in as a little girl when she would be arranging all of her stuffed animals and dolls, while she took on the role of a teacher. She knew it right off, that one day she would grow up to be a teacher. So determined, so focussed, she was the girl that everyone envied.
“It was so exciting,” Melanie exclaims, the sparkle in her eyes still strong in her calm eyes, twenty years later. “I loved art. And I loved teaching. I said to myself, why not combine the two, and become a Visual Arts teacher?”
And so followed her admission into one of the best universities in Toronto for learning the skill. “But my teaching was never limited to just one thing. I felt I had so much to give to others, so much to do!” Anything Melanie knew, she wanted to pass on to others, if it could help them. So when she wasn’t busy focussing on her course load at university, she was busy coaching the local soccer team. “I would pick my sister up from my parents’ house after I was done my classes at the university and then take her for soccer practices where I was coaching the local team.”
Until one of those drives to pick her sister up proved to be the very last time ever for her.
“I was on the 401,” Melanie remembers that day so very vividly. In the middle of one of the busiest highways, the vision in her left eye failed her completely.
Confused and scared, she managed to reach her parents’ house to pick up her sister for her soccer class. “I still thought it would be ok, and I could make it for the soccer class.” Her team was waiting for her, and she didn’t want to keep them waiting.
But things were far from ok as Melanie started to throw up, still unable to see from her left eye. Her parents rushed her to the hospital: the first turn of events that was to change all of their lives forever.
Multiple check-ups, scans and some misdiagnosis later, doctors finally concluded that Melanie had suffered a stroke, and was eventually treated for Hydrocephalus: a condition that results in the buildup of too much cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. Under normal circumstances, this fluid cushions the human brain. However, an excessive amount of fluid places dangerous pressure on the brain and can permanently damage the brain, causing problems with physical and mental development. If untreated, it is typically fatal. “But I was meant to live, just not the way we had imagined.”
At the time, nothing made sense to anyone. “Who could ever imagine a 21 year old perfectly healthy girl to have suffered a stroke?” exclaims Melanie. And when it did finally make sense, a surgery was followed to remove the clots in her brain which in turn led her to spiralling downhill as she became completely paralyzed and slipped into coma. Doctors slowly started to give up on her.
“It was all so sudden.”
Who knew that one minute, a girl so full of love and laughter, the “coolest” sister for her younger siblings, and the responsible, dependable daughter to her parents, would in the next minute be getting wheeled in to the E.R. while she would be battling for life?
An old cliché comes to my mind as I chat with Melanie: Here and now is what we have; live it to the fullest.
“I was in coma for two weeks. And all through the time I was laying there, motionless in my bed and strapped to my life support system, I was aware of all that was happening around me.”
“I clearly remember every word my family was saying around me!” Melanie’s memories come rushing back to her as she quotes her father’s words to her doctors, “You don’t know our daughter, she’s extremely stubborn. She’s going to fight and come right back, you’ll see!”
“My father would put headphones in my ears so I could hear music,” Melanie goes on to say. “Seal’s Kissed by a Rose touched me over and over again.”
Feeling her father’s strength pushing her to come out of her coma mixed with her mother’s desperate cries for her to come back to them all became forces for her. “I could hear my siblings frantically promising their love to me, singing to me all the while I lay there.”
Melanie breaks into laughter as she remembers one of her little sisters who was 13 at the time, admitting to stealing her favourite candy, but promising to return it to her if only she would come back to life! “Their voices were so clear in my head, and they all had to admit their love to me!”
But things started to slip further for Melanie as doctors started to give up hope.
“I could see a bright light. I saw my grand-father and god-father, both of whom had passed on years ago, standing in front of that light. As I got closer to them, they kept telling me to return back to my body, for it was not my time to pass yet.”
Melanie is clear with her description of what they had to say. “I even remember, they were standing in front of a ‘57 blue Chevy convertible! I had never seen it ever before.”
Back in Melanie’s hospital room, the end was near. “My parents were given the ultimate news to expect, and they had to start planning for my funeral.”
Melanie remembers a final plea from her aunt whispering in her ears, “Tomorrow is my birthday. Give me this gift, please: I want you back on my birthday.”
July 29th, the year 1995. Melanie opened her eyes.
Amidst shock and celebration, hope and gloom, laughter and prayers, Melanie was back. But it was a different Melanie. Unable to understand what was going on around her, and to her body, she remained scared and confused. Over-protective parents and concerned doctors kept her from all the details. She remained ignorant about her condition, until a nurse brought her face to face with reality. “You’ve been stripped off every last bit of your dignity Melanie. You can’t walk or move, you’re completely dependent on machines to survive. Your body is latched on to many tubes including a catheter that will help your stools and urine pass out of your body and into a pan. But you are alive Melanie, and we will do everything possible to restore your dignity back to you.”
Her nurse, Shirley became one of her many angels in her battle to live, and live with dignity.
And so started a decade long journey and hours and hours of therapy to get Melanie back on her feet. “I was a like a rag doll. My neck would fall if I tried to lift it up.” Melanie had a long, long way to go. But still, as her nurse said, she was alive. And that to her and to her family was hope.
Many months later, her family did confirm to her that her grandfather in fact did own a blue Chevy convertible.
“I want to walk,” was all Melanie could hear in her mind.
Extremely positive, extremely determined to get back to her who she was, Melanie did not once let out a tear. People started wondering, with so much pent up emotions, she would surely explode one day. But Melanie only, and always had a “Come on, let’s go!!” attitude that pulled patients around her to higher spirits. So infectious was her courage, she defied all predictions.
But reality was still far from the world that she had created in her mind. While she was being trained to stand up on her own feet again, she would remain permanently blind in her left eye along with many other lifelong complications. Her parents let go of her own apartment and moved all of her belongings back to their own house. Melanie wouldn’t be independent for a long time to come, even though she imagined otherwise.
The next few years were a constant battle for Melanie. From training her body to do the most basic movements to accepting that she would be dependent for the smallest of things, it became frustrating to give up caring for others and instead resort to being cared for at every step. Her mental state of mind soured her relations both within herself, and with those around her. Recovery was certainly not easy, both on the physical and emotional level.
She was to give up one more thing. Her love of art became a part of her history as the right part of her brain was now damaged. “I just lost my love of art.”
Still positive, she remained thankful, for she still had her passion to teach.
Unfortunately for her, she was no longer accepted in the ‘real world’ to be a teacher, owing to her new status of being a disabled person.
“How could I accept that I was no longer a good teacher? I had exceptional grades right throughout school, I had an inborn talent to connect with students and impart knowledge and I had a passionate desire to make a difference. I just wanted that one professional opportunity to teach.”
But all roads led to just one question from her interviewees, “But how will you teach with all your disabilities?”
Frustrations peaked for Melanie not when she lost her vision, not when her life almost slipped out of her hands, or not when she had to re-learn how to sit up and walk, but when she began being questioned about her disability over and over and over again.
“I thought getting a job was about my abilities and not my disabilities,” she laments.
It is easy to lose confidence in oneself when one is asked the same question over and over again.
Being jobless in the field she was extremely keen to pursue, Melanie had to take up whatever job came her way. “I finally got a position working in a bank.”
One can only want to be more like her, when Melanie displays another rare quality: the quality to laugh at one’s own self even in the most trying times. “Thank god I wasn’t made to be a teller at the bank. Imagine a blind person behind the counter! I’d be handing out money to people, constantly asking them instead how much money I had given!”
A good laugh later about her own situation, Melanie decided her life was unfulfilling just working at a bank. “I was just not giving back. I wanted to do more.”
She went on to live her dream one more time and completed her education. Melanie Taddeo became the first legally blind person in Canada to complete the teachers’ college in all of Ontario, and that too with Honours. Others in her position before her had quit halfway, unable to complete the course due to various circumstantial difficulties.
“Of course I am proud. But then, it’s nothing unnatural. When you are forced into any situation, you learn very quickly and then anybody can do anything.”
Melanie landed up as a grade 8 teacher at a public school. “The children respected me for what I taught them, how I taught them. But it was the adults in charge of hiring me who saw me as being incapable.”
Melanie moved on to take up a job at a special needs school. “I loved every moment of my time teaching at that school. I finally felt appreciated, that my talents were recognized by students and staff alike. There was a certain thrill to teaching special needs children, for they truly have a quest to learn. A lot of things in life are not taken for granted.”
Somewhere within, Melanie knew she had not yet reached her goal. “I had to do more for others.”
She finally started a program to help the disabled get their confidence back. “I could now understand how restrictive it can get for others in a similar position as me, wanting to work.”
Melanie put in all her money to open a learning centre for the disabled and initially helped a hundred disabled people learn life skills and get their confidence back. “I knew that moment on, this is what I was meant to do!”
Not giving up her love of education and teaching others, Melanie for the first time realized the purpose of her life. “Whatever happens, happens for a reason.”
Melanie still has that sparkle in her eyes almost two decades later.
While living off a disability plan from the government, Melanie has been there like a rock for all those who need her. She set up a school for the disabled, concentrating in the areas of advocacy referral and counseling. This past year, Melanie championed another project: ‘Voices for Ability’ - a 24/7 online radio show, the first of its kind in Canada, giving a platform to the disabled to have their voices heard.
“The unemployment rate amongst the disabled is so alarmingly high. People automatically right you off the moment they see you are a disabled person.” She is on a mission to change all of that.
The vocational centre she set up, Connect 4 Life helps the disabled to hone their talents in Broadcasting and in various professional areas.
One of her students, Lily, currently registered in the program, talks passionately about what she has gained so far from her class. “I was never aware of things around me. Nothing really mattered, for everything seemed unimportant to me. Since I have started coming to Melanie’s classes, I am knowledgeable about politics, and learnt the importance of empowering ourselves. I have realized the significance of having a say in this world, and how much of a difference we can make, and how interconnected we all are.”
Melanie’s program is today making a huge impact in addressing the issue of disability within Ontario by partnering with local agencies and programs to help provide better access to educational and training services. Dependent upon the support of care and informed donors, Melanie has come a long way in reaching her mission: The mission to let the world know that disabled people can make a difference as well. She has taken upon herself to ensure that every individual who is disabled has access to effective programming that will offer them the opportunity to empower themselves and lead fulfilling lives.
“No, I’m not making any money from all that I am doing,” says Melanie. “My reward is knowing that my students are building skill sets that they weren’t aware of. My reward is knowing that they are learning time management and are getting their confidence back. My reward is knowing that they are now being called for interviews, and are getting hired. It’s rewarding to hear, ‘if Melanie can do it, I can do it.”
It’s true, somethings just cannot be measured in terms of money.
Lina Taddeo, once the little girl crying by Melanie’s bedside at the hospital, admitting all of her love for her sister, today stands tall right behind her sister, supporting her as a teaching assistant at the school. “Melanie does things for people, and she doesn’t even realize she’s helping them,” says Lina proudly of her sister.
Melanie assures her parents who have been her tower of strength right throughout her journey, “I tell my mother, that I was given this opportunity by God. My faith in him has become stronger than ever. He had a plan for me, and this was what he wanted me to do.”
Convinced that she was gifted to come back to this world from a coma to be the teacher that she had always desired to be. But a teacher to whom, is what she believes was a plan from God. “I only had to use my teaching talents. I am blessed to be using it to those who value it so much.”
Currently running a “What’s Your Ability?” campaign, Melanie hopes to reach a much greater audience to spread her word on equality of all. With the number of listeners tuned in to her radio channel rising from only 5 when she started it last year to a 1,000 this year, she is confident that her heart is on the right track. “Listeners are not just in Canada, but all the way in Europe, South Africa, China and India as well.”
A walk around Melanie’s classroom full of eager and intelligent group of students gives one a feeling that is no different from any other vocational school. Only the chairs are replaced by wheelchairs, but the eagerness to learn and participate in class lectures are only heightened in this class, if one must find a difference.
The world may have a difference of opinion while hiring those with visible and invisible disabilities. But inside Melanie’s classroom, all her students agree on one thing, which they all voice together:
“We all connect and understand each other. We have found a family, because we have all walked the same path. And together, we stand united, ready to speak up and make a difference.”
Melanie Taddeo, thank you for instilling faith in those who may have lost it. Thank you for choosing to make this world a better place. You are the Hope Amidst Losses Directing Alternate Roads: A HALDAR HERO in every way!
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