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.